The Sound and the Fury

How has heavy metal music influenced my writing?
| Aug 21, 2019 | 8 comments |

I came across this article that I wrote a number of years ago on my blog and thought it had some interesting insights. Most of my books have a “heavy metal” feel to them, a direct result of listening to metal music nonstop since I was a teenager. Although my musical tastes and my writing style has changed over the past couple of years, I figure that a lot of readers and writers on this website are heavy metal fans and if you’re one of them, I hope you can relate.


How exactly does heavy metal influence my writing?

1. Metal is loud, bombastic, and aggressive.

That’s not to say that there aren’t subtleties and nuances to be found in the hurricane of power chords, thunderous guitar riffs, light-speed double bass drumming, and ferocious vocals, but one defining characteristic is its sheer massive power. Metal music is not tame or shy or weak. It’s not vulnerable or overly-sensitive. Metal music is overt, in-your-face, and above all, empowering. It’s not music to make you search your soul for the source of your misery; it’s a jackhammer for you to blast your misery into tiny fragments, and then take said jackhammer and destroy every piece of furniture in your living room.

I strive to incorporate this brash aggression into my writing. Writing a novel is a more delicate process than bellowing a heavy metal anthem, but it doesn’t mean it has to be limp-wristed and timid. My writing is often violent (physically or emotionally) and I intend for it to be a challenge to the reader. Metal isn’t easy listening, and I don’t want my books to be either.

2. Metal is dark and cynical.

Heavy metal won’t give you the warm and fuzzies. It’s not music to set a romantic mood or soothe your soul at the end of a long hard day (although it can be cathartic when you feel like you want to break someone’s head after sitting in traffic for three hours). The lyrics often deal with dark, negative themes, and you won’t find comfort or resolution in the crushing chords of a metal song. There have been moments when I’ve listened to an epic metal opus and I could feel my heart literally wither inside my chest. Metal can be majestic and soaring at times, but even these songs have a hint of menace in them. That’s just the nature or metal music – heaviness is essential, and heavy = dark. The same can be said for the subject matter: anger, disillusionment, challenging authority, struggle, and war. Not exactly the stuff of lullabies and love ballads.

In my own writing, I don’t want the reader to feel comfortable. I incorporate some elements for shock value, but I want the book itself to be a challenging experience. To accomplish this, I include unlikeable characters, disturbing themes, and epic struggles that don’t always turn out all right in the end. My books aren’t necessarily depressive and bleak, but they won’t make you feel like whistling a happy tune as you skip down the street.
3. Metal takes pride in being outside the mainstream.

The metal movement is massive, with tens of millions of fans all over the world. Yet is is largely maligned by popular society. This is part of the draw of heavy metal. People who feel like they are on the fringes of mainstream society are drawn to metal music for the very reason that it too is stereotyped and dismissed by the masses. In recent years, metal music has become more acceptable in mainstream society but this is only in limited amounts. The majority of metal music is underground because most people simply can’t handle it. It will never be “popular” and that’s what it wants. Metal music wants to be respected but it doesn’t want to be a part of normal society. It wears its counterculture badge with pride.

I know the subjects that I write about will also likely never be popular. Of course I would like be a successful author, but I have to be true to my imagination. The stories in my head that are clamoring to be written are not about topics and themes that most people would like to read about, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to water down my writing to appeal to the mainstream. I want to be the best writer I can be, and if my writing is truly good enough, it will be recognized regardless of theme and subject matter. But until then, I must content myself to be on the fringes of the mainstream book world. This is the path that I have chosen, and I have to accept any struggle that comes with it.

Regardless of whether I become a bestseller or remain in the underground, I will keep on rocking. This is the attitude of true metal music and my attitude when I write. You can either take it for what it is or walk away, but don’t expect it to change to suit your delicate sensibilities.

You Must Not Steal E-Books

I keep seeing all these excuses from e-book thieves eager to justify their violation of God’s law.
| Aug 20, 2019 | 33 comments |

“All my books have been widely pirated,” says a fantasy author friend of mine, R. J. Anderson.1

Another friend asked how she knew this. Anderson continued:

Every time I google any of my book titles, I get a slew of links to pirate e-book sites. I also see forums where my books are being requested for download and those requests are being answered by other users who send links to them via DM. And that’s just the surface; there are way more sites that fly under the radar. Only a couple months ago I had to ask a Wattpad-type writing site to stop one of its users from uploading the entire text of [my book] to her account at the rate of one chapter a week — as though her acknowledgment in the author’s note that “I didn’t write this, I just liked the story” made it somehow legal or OK. By the time I came across it, she’d uploaded eight chapters.

She also shared a screenshot from author Rachel Caine, who said in this tweet:

Needless to say—no, apparently very needful after all—this is wrong. God’s word says:

You must not steal.2

In response, I keep seeing all these excuses from e-book thieves eager to justify their violation of God’s law.3

Special pleading

But at least that way authors get more readers!

You must not steal.

Oh, but some people simply don’t have access to the e-book in their country.

You must not steal.

If I give the author credit, then that makes it okay.

You must not steal.

You’re being greedy. Everybody should share in culture.

You must not steal.

Think of the exposure—

You must not steal.

But real-life items are different from “internet” content like e-books!

You must not steal.

Reading an author’s work is a greater compliment than ignoring it.

You must not steal.

I have to spend my money on other, more important things.

You must not steal.

If I bought the book secondhand, the writer would get no money anyway.

You must not steal.

I’ve read too many bad books, so this way I can first make sure it’s good.

You must not steal.

I’m not stealing from “small” authors, only the “big names” who can afford it.

You must not steal.

To hell with your standard. I’ll do what I want.

You must not steal.

Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.4

Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.5

  1. Thanks to some late-night book editing, I’m pulling from this earlier article at my own site. Next week, I’ll conclude the Realm Makers 2019: One Hundred Graces series.
  2. Exodus 20:15.
  3. Some of these responses are found in Katy Guest’s article, “‘I can get any novel I want in 30 seconds’: can book piracy be stopped?“, The Guardian, March 6, 2019.
  4. 1 Corinthians 6:9–10; emphases added. But see verse 11 for the good news.
  5. Ephesians 4:28.

2019 Summer Writing Challenge Winner

The 2019 summer challenge inspired me. I’m considering a twist to the challenge: instead of one sentence every entrant must use, I’m considering two sentences from which each must choose one.

Congratulations to our Spec Faith 2019 Summer Writing Challenge winner:

Sarah Daffy

If you followed the poll for the 2019 Summer Challenge throughout the week, you saw how the three entries (you can read all three here) ran neck and neck until the weekend.

Thanks to each person who took time to read these finalists’ stories and to vote for the one they liked best. Without readers, the contest would not be much of a contest.

I’ll be contacting Sarah to arrange her prize, a $25 e-card either from Barnes&Noble or from Amazon.

Regular visitors here know that the writing challenge runs twice a year, once during the “dog days of summer,” and another during the cold winter. If you missed the opportunity to participate in the 2019 Summer challenge, be sure to join the fun in 2020 when we’ll run the next winter challenge.

The 2019 summer challenge inspired me. I’m considering a twist to the contest: instead of one sentence every entrant must use, I’m toying with the idea of providing two sentences from which each contestant must choose one. Any thoughts?

For any who missed Sarah’s story—a creative twist, for sure—here it is again.

###$&$&###

Sarah Daffy

Jag couldn’t be a part of the rebellion any more—not with what he knew now—but could he convince the other rebels to lay down their arms?

He had to. He must.

But then again, he was the only one armed with a paperclip.

Now he knew that a paperclip was not strong enough to defeat the enemy. He also knew that when they reached contact with the outside world where it was raining, they would be stripped bare of everything they had ever known. Why, oh, why did he have to be a paper doll?

He aimed his paperclip at the pointed pen caps of the opposing party which was making its way toward the cracked window.

He had to stop them. He had to. He must.

How? He hadn’t figured that out yet.

He was just focused on aiming the paperclip.

###$&$&###

And the final results of the 2019 Summer Writing Challenge poll:


“Esther Wallace spins a tale that balances moral conviction with moral complexity.”
Lorehaven magazine (read full review)

The Price and Power of Individual Choices

Some readers have asked me why The Savage War doesn’t have much to do with magic. My first serious answer is that High Fantasy was not the story I was given to write. My second is that it is very […]
| Aug 16, 2019 | 11 comments |

Some readers have asked me why The Savage War doesn’t have much to do with magic.

My first serious answer is that High Fantasy was not the story I was given to write.

My second is that it is very important to me that people realize their worth.

I’ve spoken to several people who sigh and tell me they wish they were superheroes or wizards going to Hogwarts. I ask them what’s wrong with being human. Their response is that humans are nothing. This is an idea that has been pushed by pop culture.

In Harry Potter, the non-magical population, muggles, not only are forbidden from Hogwarts, but the wizards think it is fine to confuse them, wipe their memory, etc. etc. etc. Wizards have no more respect for humans’ inalienable right to choose right and wrong for themselves then if ‘muggles’ were animals and not humans at all.

On the flip side of that message, there’s a subtle story of what that attitude creates in Petunia. Because she was rejected, told she was nothing by Snape in particular, she threw a wall between her and that world of wizards, refusing to acknowledge its existence. When forced to do otherwise, she acted with bitterness and hate. Not that I like Petunia’s character, but I understand what caused some of her choices.

Very few notice that story however. It was inserted by accident as a reason to create a horrible living circumstance for the main character, a reason for him to dream of escape and for people to sympathize with him.

Superhero stories, of course, abound with people being physically changed forever before they go out and ‘rescue the world’. I always wanted Captain America to stay the sick kid and find some way to make a huge difference in the world, earning the title Captain America for great deeds that no one thought him capable of doing. Instead, they make him a ‘giant’ first.

I do appreciate the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) more than DC however, for the existence of Hawkeye and Black Widow. They didn’t heavily alter themselves to go save the world. They just go out anyway with all the natural talents and some gismos given to them. Once again, they aren’t the big poster Avengers as they’re shunted aside for those with super powers.

When books are changed into film adaption, the message of human worthlessness is typically added. The producers made a point to have Elrond spurn the worth of humans in the film adaptation of the Lord of the Rings. Some have argued that Aragorn proves him wrong, but I have heard others say he has Elven blood in him, so he’s still not fully human.

There are films and books that fight this idea, but I have heard about enough people struggling with their worth to know a story about our responsibility as humans, without going too far the other way, is something priceless.

Therefore, a side theme in The Savage War is how all our choices can sink or raise a kingdom. A tiny action ripples outward until it fills an entire ocean, and we don’t need to turn to science or other powers to make a difference. God placed humans on the Earth to tend it (Genesis 1:28-30) and Jesus said with the faith of a mustard seed, we can move a mountain (Matthew 17:20). Our power is released through both our love and our faults. Who will we touch or harm by love or anger next and where will that go? Only God knows the answer, but we can at least remember the extent of our power and worth, our responsibility given by our Creator.

Non-Lethal Speculative Fiction Weapons

On Star Trek, setting a weapon to “stun” is easy. In reality, it’s easier to use energy to kill or maim than to immobilize. But science fiction and fantasy stories alike can benefit from thinking about what non-lethal weapons can do.
| Aug 15, 2019 | 22 comments |

This post is adapted from something I wrote about non-lethal weapons on my personal blog. I’m sharing it here because I want to get back into the Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War and this post has elements like that series–i.e. technical speculation on the nature of future warfare that will enhance the life of science fiction writers, to which I’ve also added some bits about fantasy worlds.

Probably the most famous non-lethal weapon in all of speculative fiction is the Star Trek phaser, set on stun:

Image copyright: tshirtroundup.com

In spite of how easy-to-use this beam weapon is on Star Trek, the reality of human life and life in general is that it occupies a delicate balance of conditions, so that in general it’s easier to kill or seriously wound a living being with a burst of energy than to disable one without harm. As an example of what I mean, you might recall the case of the terrorist attack in Moscow in 2002, when terrorists from Chechnya took over a theater. Around 40 terrorist were holding 850 people hostage.

In the end, the Russians pumped an anesthesia gas into the place, in a quantity they intended to knock people out without killing them. The 40 terrorists zonked out, allowing military and paramilitary forces to rush in and shoot them. However, of the 850 hostages, about 130 were overdosed on the gas and died. That allowed 700 other people to be rescued and you could therefore say this use of a non-lethal weapon was a success. Though it wouldn’t feel that way if you were one of the 130 who died or related to them…

The problem is it’s easy to overdose a person on gas. The amount needed varies based on size, general health, muscle mass, and even unexpected variables such as whether you have red hair. And even people who are not killed by an overdose of anesthesia gas, who simply fall asleep, may suffer from a reaction of vomiting–which can lead them to choking to death on their own emesis. These difficulties show why a team of life-saving professionals administer anesthesia in hospitals. You can’t just administer sleepy gas or serum and walk away. Not if you want to be sure the patient will live.

Other disabling systems have the same problem. Too little of whatever you want to use and the person you intended to stun is still on his feet, ready to hurt you. Too much and you might permanently injure or kill the person you meant to stun. Ultrasonic waves or infrared heat that can disable an opponent at a certain range of energy prove ineffective or overkill at others. And the systems required to set up such “stun” settings for infrared or other beams of energy are not presently something you can just hold in your hand. And the chances are you won’t be able to hold anything like that in your hand anytime soon.

The Star Trek “stun” setting is just fiction. Knocking people out without killing them is a lot harder than that.

Star Wars used carbon freezing to in effect “stun” Han Solo (though Star Wars also shows a stun beam at least once), though if you freeze a person, the real problem comes with thawing him out. Frozen cells rupture, so a thawed person in reality is as good as dead, even if not exactly dead yet. Star Wars offered no real solution to this problem, only hinting at the difficulty by making Han Solo temporarily blind on his release from his imprisonment. But even if you mastered the technology of freezing and rethawing, actual freezing would surely work a lot better in a controlled environment, that say dumping ultra-cold liquid on a battlefield, just like anesthesia works a lot better on a surgical table than in a Moscow theater.

A pretty effective modern system revolves around pepper spray, which is usually good at causing pain and making people drop to the ground, disabled but not killed. This isn’t very practical for military use since its range is so short and it can be cancelled out by chemical protective gear. And a tiny percentage of people can ignore pepper spray anyway.

And in a speculative fiction context, I think you’d have no assurance that the pepper spray we use would work at all on an alien species or fantasy creatures–they might simply get angry. Or hungry for that matter. 🙂

The modern taser gives a better example of how an effective stun system might work. The taser uses electrical pulses to in essence override the nervous system of the person it’s used on. This isn’t practical as a military weapon as of now, because its range is too short. But imagine you could fire a taser rocket that would fly over to an enemy, guiding itself, then delivering the taser charge and keep the shocks going until its owner came to turn it off (and take the enemy prisoner). That might be very effective. And its stunning effect could be tailored to match the species it attacks. Or we could alternatively imagine a self-piloting flying syringe delivering designer anesthetic and then monitoring the patient afterwards to insure correct dosage.

In fact, futuristic science fiction story worlds with robotic weapons incorporating computer systems that would have the ability to individually calculate dosages of anesthesia or amounts of shocking energy and monitor the person who falls afterwards make non-lethal systems suddenly become much more likely. Individually fired flying projectiles, ones that could guide themselves to their target, and that could deliver a precise dose of whatever it took to knock out an opponent, such technology seems to be an inevitable part of the future of weapons.

Note that other futuristic computerized systems are possible, not just the self-guiding flying kind. You could have a door that automatically stuns people who attempt to break in. Or bomblets which drop from the sky, opening up into little flying or even crawling robots, seeking out people to stun. Or self-deploying cages or traps, that capture a person without harming anyone. Or a nanite cloud, which in science fiction are usually portrayed as eating people alive, instead, delivering them just the right amount of anesthesia to put them to sleep.

In a story world like that, taking prisoners could become the standard practice, actually killing people on purpose would be considered wrong and unneeded. Or at least certain science fiction races would see it that way. Others, presumably, would not (some interesting stories could be told about clashes between the different races with differing philosophies on lethality).

In fantasy stories, the use of non-lethal weapons is not generally considered a problem. If people (only those who breathe, though) happen to fall asleep in the field of poppies featured in The Wizard of Oz without any risk of death, that’s just how the magic in the story works. Likewise a user of magic might command an opponent to sleep and it will work without harm to opponents every time.

I think magical traps or cages are also pretty common in fantasy. Such as a room you can enter but cannot escape on your own.

But these kinds of fantasy stories might gain a small edge of realism by importing a few science fiction ideas into the background. So while a fireball or lightning bolt or similar spell that can kill or seriously maim could be sent off without a second thought required of the spell caster, perhaps a spell putting people to sleep or stunning them would require some sort of magical creature to consciously guide and direct the magic, perhaps an imp or a pixie. Or perhaps the casting of non-lethal spells could require more training and complex conjuring than lethal spells. Even if we put aside knocking people unconscious, it certainly seems much more complex to build a room that traps people than simply produce a lot of heat or electricity or similar energy that will kill or maim them.

Crafting magical systems that make non-lethal options more difficult could also have story implications concerning the nature of good and evil. Killing is easier, so evil characters drift to that kind of magic, while good characters struggle with harder, non-lethal spells. A setup like that would provide as a simple acknowledgement of that fact that reliably knocking people out without any risk of killing them is actually pretty difficult.

So, readers of this post, have you used non-lethal weapons in any of your stories? How did your weapons systems work? Or have you read stories that feature these kinds of weapons? Please share in the comments below.

A Few Highlights

I’ve been reflecting on the books I have had the opportunity to read and the privilege to review. I am going to highlight just a few.
| Aug 14, 2019 | 3 comments |

So you all know about Lorehaven, right? Great.

I began writing reviews for Lorehaven about two years ago. Lorehaven reviews are most often short, no more than 150 words, and their purpose is to help you know whether the book in question is the sort of thing you would like. Whether it is the sort of thing we would like is not of great interest. The necessary brevity, together with the desired objectivity, encourages a straightforward treatment: summary, strengths, weaknesses, conclusion – and no more than two or three sentences for each.

But I’ve been reflecting on the books I have had the opportunity to read and the privilege to review. I am going to highlight just a few, those that remain most vivid in my mind after the time that has passed. A couple of these overlap with genres, or subgenres, I don’t normally favor. This demonstrates that although the disadvantage of assigned books is that you read things you would not have chosen for yourself, the advantage is that you read things you would not have chosen for yourself.

The Red Rider, by Randall Allen Dunn. I am going to state right at the beginning that this one was too strong for my tastes. Yet it was striking, and memorable even after two years. This comes, I think, from three qualities: one, its perfect meshing of the fairy tale of Red Riding Hood with the legend of werewolves; two, its dark, dreamlike atmosphere – as if it is taking place not in our world but a worse version of it; three, the almost bizarre appropriateness of its horror elements. “Little Red Riding Hood” always was ghastly, you know.

Nick Newton Is Not a Genius, by S.E.M. Ishida.This brief novel is, technically, for children, and I won’t be backward in admitting that it matches its intended readers with a certain simplicity. But it is colorful and creative and utterly charming. Even the simplicity is played into a virtue. This world of robots and whimsy would not be nearly as much as fun if we had to enter it with the deadly seriousness of adults.

Journey Into Legend, by Henry Schreiner. This one is a throwback, and not only because it contains college students who write actual letters. The narrative – presented through diaries, letters, and other documents, its fantastical element fortified with science – is reminiscent of the great Victorian-era forays into science fiction. It’s magical realism, old-school.

Launch, by Jason Joyner. Have you ever noticed that if you squint, certain biblical figures – say, Elijah or Samson – might be superheroes, only with more religion and less spandex? This novel takes that idea out for a spin and proves it to be a lot of fun. It is also strikingly successful in creating, without artificiality or strain, the youthful, contemporaneous world of its teenage protagonists.

To Ashes We Run, by Just B. Jordan. The two greatest strengths of this novel – and you should understand that by greatest strengths, I mean the things that most appealed to me personally – are the world-building and the characters. I always find special appeal in fantasy worlds that can combine genuine mythos with a realistic consideration of politics and culture. I find even more appeal in any novel that feels, and causes me to feel, the lives and personalities of its characters.

Realm Makers 2019: One Hundred Graces, part 3

E. Stephen Burnett reviews graces 51 through 75, which he found at last month’s Realm Makers conference.
| Aug 13, 2019 | 4 comments | Series:

Nearly a month after the last Realm Makers conference, I’m going crazy with things to do.

Piling up are book edits, Lorehaven magazine work, and a new foster care mission(!). Also, messages. So many messages from friends and allies.

No, I’m not complaining.

Rather, this makes the fifty-first grace—a gift from God by way of his people—that I count after the Realm Makers 2019 conference.

  1. Once upon a time, when a writers’ conference ended, I came home and basically reverted to the same life. The only exception: maybe a proposal or two to ship out. But these last years have been different. I bring work home with me: contacts to follow up, renewed friendships with people to catch up with, magazine work, new recruits. And, of course, planning for the next conference(s).
  2. Lauren H. Salisbury! Apart from Grace Bridges, or perhaps Michael Ban, Lauren may have won the furthest-traveled award. She hails from the UK. And in our conversation she shared fascinating views on Christian fiction. Turns out that over there in merry ol’ post-Christian England, they actually love having some kind of literature that’s distinctly Christian in origin or theme. Yes, even the “inspirational” stuff. Yes, maybe even the Amish romances. Lauren re-taught me that snarky Christian-fiction-sneering Christians from America might need to check their privilege. Also, she was very polite when I did the whole cliched series of “what kind of accent?” questions.
  3. Every year also brings someone who has a travel-horror story. (I think I still won 2016’s top horrible story, when thanks to Hillary Clinton and thunderstorms in Philadelphia, I was marooned in Richmond, Virginia.) This year, several people’s flights were delayed or outright cancelled because of thunderstorms (but no Clinton). Thank God, everyone reached the conference safely, even if late.
  4. On the Facebook group, I offered snacks to anyone who had a tragic travel backstory. Two people took me up on this offer.
  5. Airport shuttles are one of the little blessings of life. This one, even at 10:30 p.m., confirmed the same.
  6. That Burger King open late in the St. Louis airport was exactly what I needed at this late hour.
  7. Alas, I don’t recall the name of the chap who joined me for the shuttle, heading to the conference. But it was great to meet him.
  8. No matter how late you reach the hotel, someone is already up. In this case, I got to join Steve Rzasa and Becky Dean.
  9. Bless the hotel air-conditioner for trying. But when the device changes your room between “refreshing cool” and “sticky interior,” then the overall effect ends up being “sticky interior.”
  10. Doesn’t matter. No one sleeps regularly at conferences. Somehow we get enough grace to overcome this sin.
  11. All the conversations and interactions that keep me from getting to my classes on time. Again, I’m not complaining!
  12. I was late to Wayne Thomas Batson’s class. But this fantasy author’s encouragements to maintain a disciplined writing life were spot-on.
  13. I was also late to Steve Laube’s class. He was overviewing his literary agent’s perspective on the process of a book’s acquisition and publication. I arrived just in time for all of his tragicomic “everything in the late-publication process goes desperately wrong” anecdotes. Close enough.
  14. Many thousands of dollars’ worth of printed books, with misspelled names on the spine, died to bring us this tragicomic anecdote.
  15. That Starbucks within quick walking distance was a total Godsend, especially on that first morning.
  16. It’s also great to fetch a quick breakfast at the hotel and meet people you know, and new people you want to know!
  17. Fuzzy’s Tacos. Last year plenty of us frequented this nearby fast-casual joint, which I’d previously thought was an establishment exclusive to my home in central Texas. This year I think I ended up having meals there three times in a row. (Again, not complaining.) I shall miss Fuzzy’s Tacos at the next Realm Makers (which is moving to Atlantic City, New Jersey).
Realm Makers 2019: Stephen, Rachel, Kerry, and Marian

A break from Fuzzy’s Tacos for pizza instead. From left: E. Stephen Burnett, Rachel Starr Thomson, Kerry Nietz, and Marian Jacobs.

  1. I am complaining that this year I couldn’t bring my wife, Lacy. She has joined me for the last two Realm Makers and I’d love to continue this. But this year it didn’t work. However, it’s just as fun to stay in touch with her and share with her all the news.
  2. The same is true for my friends Austin Gunderson (also Lorehaven review chieftain) and Zack Russell. Who’ll return next year. Right?
  3. Sharon Hinck! To my regret, she wasn’t even at this year’s conference. But people were still talking about her class from last year.
  4. The woman to my left at the costume banquet. She was from the local area and had accompanied her teenage daughter to the conference. Bother! I wish I could recall her name. But it was great to talk with her, and to be encouraged by her natural parenting commitment to help her daughter explore this writing interest and reflect the image of God in her.
  5. Completely unrelated: no one at Realm Makers judges you for not finishing your banquet-provided asparagus.
  6. Somehow the Lorehaven booth got a pretty good location in the bookstore.
  7. Lauren Brandenburg, author, homeschool mom, and returning Realm Makers conference emcee extraordinaire.
  8. I’ve mentioned the “TALKABLE” sticker (in part 1, number 11). But I must also draw attention to the genre stickers that, I believe, have been a part of conference badge-accessorizing since the first year. You can use a dragon for fantasy, a spaceship for sci-fi, and so on. In my case, I used both. And I could have also made up my own sticker for “nonfiction.”

Next time, I’ll wrap up this series. I’ll especially hearken to early plans for next year’s Realm Makers conference in New Jersey.

2019 Spec Faith Summer Writing Challenge Finalists

Be sure to share this post and the 2019 poll on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, or wherever you hang out on social media.

Special thanks to all who entered the 2019 Spec Faith Summer Writing Challenge and to all who gave their feedback in the preliminary rounds.

As in other writing challenges, we had more than three 2019 entries that received a high number of thumbs up. Clearly these were strong submissions, many from writers who haven’t entered this contest before. I hope the writing challenge has encouraged and inspired each to continue developing their storytelling skills. In fact, that’s my hope for all who entered.

We had a good variety again, some that were clearly story beginnings, others that were complete stories of flash fiction. We had some comedy and some serious, sad stories. It never ceases to amaze me that from one sentence we can create such varied, unique stories. Again, well done, all of you.

Now for the all important last step. As you all can see if you view the entries, we have a close finish, but the top three, receiving the most thumbs up, are Sophie, Sarah Daffy, and C. S. Wachter.

Here are their entries again (in alphabetical order by FIRST name—since Sophie only entered a first name), followed by the poll. Choose from these three entries and vote once for the one you think is best.

Voting for the 2019 winner will last until midnight (Pacific time), Sunday, August 18.

C. S. Wachter

Jag couldn’t be a part of the rebellion any more—not with what he knew now—but could he convince the other rebels to lay down their arms?

His head threatened to split open and spill his overwrought brains onto the floor.

Marissa would never understand.

Trolls’ code stated the king must be a descendant of Warbane, and now Jag knew their uprising was based on a lie, the king was of the line. They had been deceived by Nelcor, the troll seeking to steal Warmaker’s throne.

Jag thumped up the central passage to his home cave. He flung the door open with enough force it rebounded off the wall.

Marissa turned; her murky green eyes wide. “You know?”

Jag pulled up. “You knew?”

“Of course, she knew. We have been planning this for years.” Nelcor’s powerful frame filled the doorway to the kitchen.

Marissa moved toward Jag. “Please, Jag, understand. Nelcor will be a stronger king. Even you said so.”

Jag’s roar shook the cave. “The line of kings is ordained! This is wrong!” His gaze shifted between Marissa and Nelcor. He roared again, turned, and bounded out the door, grabbing his warclub as he ran.

Nelcor, the troll who had been like a father to him, was a traitor. The thought soured Jag’s stomach.

Jag didn’t stop until he reached Eagle’s Flight, an opening to the outside world high above the cave system he called home. What was he to do? Warmaker’s reign had been plagued with weakness and excess. Nelcor would be a wise king. Was the line of kings truly ordained?

Jag had always been a simple troll and these thoughts turned his brain to mush.

Stepping out onto the ledge, Jag made his choice. The wind rustled his clothing as he dropped his club and faced the rising sun. One lone tear leaked from his eye, preserved for eternity, as he turned to stone.

###$&$&###

Sarah Daffy

Jag couldn’t be a part of the rebellion any more—not with what he knew now—but could he convince the other rebels to lay down their arms?

He had to. He must.

But then again, he was the only one armed with a paperclip.

Now he knew that a paperclip was not strong enough to defeat the enemy. He also knew that when they reached contact with the outside world where it was raining, they would be stripped bare of everything they had ever known. Why, oh, why did he have to be a paper doll?

He aimed his paperclip at the pointed pen caps of the opposing party which was making its way toward the cracked window.

He had to stop them. He had to. He must.

How? He hadn’t figured that out yet.

He was just focused on aiming the paperclip.

###$&$&###

Sophie

Jag couldn’t be a part of the rebellion any more—not with what he knew now—but could he convince the other rebels to lay down their arms?

No. He couldn’t. Because that meant defeat.

The lair was filled with hot smoke from the boy’s pipes, and their laughter turned the hardiest player to shame.

The Black Fox’s emblem on his arm burned like the sparks from rebel eyes. He couldn’t say why he had allowed himself to be stamped. The heat had cut razor marks into his smooth skin, but nothing hurt worse than the rebellion in his chest that now lay dead. This meant that in order to keep his life and rid himself of the stamp, he must convince the gang to heed him.

How?

They wouldn’t lay down their arms. Their muscles were taut; elbows nailed like tar into the round barrel tables. Their opponents, the Brunch gang, sat opposite to each Black Fox boy, hands interlocked with a death grip. The process of elimination was well underway.

Jag felt the heat of the smoke pipes grow warmer as one by one, the Brunch member’s arms fell to the wooden table top with a defeated thump, and the Black Foxes cursed for their victory.

Two tables left of boys arm-wrestling. He looked to the confining emblem on his arm.

And then. . .

Yes. He could. Because that meant victory.

###$&$&###


Be sure to share this post and the 2019 poll on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or wherever you hang out on social media. In fact, share it with your face-to-face family and friends. The more voters, the better.

“Fee and Daniel struggle with decisions as fully formed characters. Descriptions give a you-are-there flavor, and the world presents unique elements.”
Lorehaven magazine (read full review)

‘I Do Not Read Fluff!’

If she’d said, “I’m not a fiction person,” or “I’m not into fantasy,” I would have understood.
| Aug 9, 2019 | 9 comments |

I was signing books at a Christian conference when a woman wandered by and picked up my novel.

“What’s it about?” she asked.

“It’s a fantasy adventure for ages ten and up,” I replied.

She hesitated. “So, it’s—it’s fiction?”

I smiled and nodded, ready to continue the conversation.

It didn’t happen.

“I do not read fluff!” She flung the book back onto the table and marched away.

I was stunned.

If she’d said, “I’m not a fiction person,” or “I’m not into fantasy,” I would have understood.

But she didn’t. She said that she doesn’t read “fluff.”

I suppose I could have asked her to define fluff, but my guess is that her answer would have confirmed what the editor of a Christian publishing house told me: Many Christians believe that reading fiction is a waste of time.

That thought saddens me. All fiction is a waste of time? Some is, for sure, and we each have our own list of what’s not good for us to read, but all fiction is a waste of time. Useless? Fluff? Wow.

Eugene Petersen didn’t think so. Petersen was a pastor for many years, then a seminary professor. He’s the author of multiple non-fiction books. In his introduction to Exodus, he said,

It is significant that God does not present us with salvation in the form of an abstract truth, or a precise definition or a catchy slogan, but as story. Exodus draws us into a story with plot and characters, which is to say, with design and personal relationships. Story is an invitation to participate, first through our imagination and then, if we will, by faith—with our total lives in response to God.

In an interview with Mars Hill, he said that if he were to start a seminary, the students would spend the first two years studying literature:

Even now, in all my courses, students read poetry and novels…The importance of poetry and novels is that the Christian life involves the use of the imagination, after all, we are dealing with the invisible. And, imagination is our training in dealing with the invisible, making connections, looking for plot and character. I don’t want to do away with or denigrate theology or exegesis, but our primary allies in this business are the artists. I want literature to be on par with those other things. They need to be brought in as full partners in this whole business. The arts reflect where we live, we live in narrative, we live in story. We don’t live as exegetes.1

If I had it to do over again, I’d lead off by telling my fluff-hater that my story is about friendship. About choices. That our choices have weight. That we need each other. How can that be fluff?

I’d tell her that I write for the 10 and up crowd because there are questions from that age that I still haven’t finished sorting out. Things like what I believe and why. Questions about belonging. At age fifteen, I was dropped into a foreign culture where I didn’t speak the language. What does it mean to belong in that context? How do you even begin? The question of what it means to belong has continued as I’ve lived almost all of my adult life in a language and culture that is not mine. Or is mine by adoption. Perhaps that’s why I wrote a portal fantasy. Like the characters in those stories, I was thrust into a new world and had to muddle through as best I could.

If the woman gave me the chance, I’d go on to tell her about some of the fiction that has influenced, challenged and shaped me.

Till We Have Faces by C. S. Lewis would be at the top of the list. I read it for the first time in my 20’s and have read it seven or eight times since then. It has shaped my understanding and experience of God more than any other book outside the Bible.

The Earthsea Trilogy by Ursula K. Le Guin was a friend when my husband and I were going through a difficult situation in our faith community. The images and metaphors in Le Guin’s stories didn’t solve any of our problems, but they helped me understand and move forward with hope.

The list could go on, but I’ll stop there and open it up to comments. I would love to hear how fiction has helped, encouraged, and shaped you.

  1. Michael J. Cusick, “A Conversation with Eugene Peterson,” LeaderU.com.

The Serious Business of Science Fiction and Fantasy

I have friends who don’t quite understand why I think science fiction and fantasy are important. I explain why in this post.
| Aug 8, 2019 | 17 comments |

I have friends who don’t quite get science fiction and fantasy and don’t really understand why I write it or publish it–in particular, friends at the Southern Baptist church I attend. (Note this post is adapted from something I wrote years ago on my personal blog.) By  the way, by “science fiction and fantasy” I mean that broadly, to include supernatural fiction and alternate history and even horror with sci fi and fantasy settings, i.e. what is often but not always called “speculative fiction.”

In 2010-11 in Afghanistan and earlier in 2008 in Iraq I wrote a series of detailed emails about my military experiences, emails I forwarded on to friends and family, who as a general group gave me positive feedback about my ability to write about the experience of being a soldier at war and who praised me for doing a good job capturing what Afghanistan and Iraq are like. A few of these friends suggested that if I want to write fiction, I should be writing military thriller genre, like Tom Clancy or many other writers.

The truth is I could write in that genre. I mean, I’m capable of doing so. I’ve already written a few short stories that deal with modern military matters, which contain some information I know from some personal experience. I’ve also written some bits that relate to ancient and medieval militaries, drawing from both my personal observations about war and studies in history.  And I’ve launched a series of articles that regular readers of Speculative Faith will have seen called the “Speculative Fiction Writer’s Guide to War”–those posts have been put on hold for a while, but I do intend to pick up writing them again until that series is complete, God providing I can find the time to do the research each of those articles requires.

I could do more along these lines of military-related writing and probably will someday. But as much as I’m interested in realistic military themes and in non-fiction, unreal worlds usually interest me more. I have no real passion for writing or publishing military fiction unless it’s also speculative. And on the other hand, I like plenty of speculative fiction with no connection to military themes at all.

Old science fiction magazine cover art with a military flair, now in the public domain.

I think there’s a positive reason why this is so, beyond the fact that I enjoy exercising my imagination. You see, writing science fiction and fantasy is serious business.

This statement may very much surprise friends of mine obsessed with politics or convinced this world is about to end soon…to them (as they only on occasion openly express), speculative fiction is sheer escapism from the world around us and spending time on it is acting like the proverbial ostrich with its head in the sand. Why be concerned with sci fi or fantasy when the real world around us has so much trouble that clamors for our attention?

I do want to acknowledge they have a tiny bit of a point. For some people, speculative lit really does seem to be nothing but escapism. And the complete pursuit of such escapism really could cause someone to fail to pay attention to what’s going on around them. There are times when it is absolutely essential to pay attention to the moment you are in and not wander off mentally to realms of things that are not. Though a devotion to speculative fiction may be more of a symptom of a withdrawal from the real world rather than a cause.

But I believe worlds of speculation, of the unreal, serve a very important function for most people whether they realize it or not. They remind people this world we dwell in is not the only world that affects our actions. What the world once was isn’t just the stuff of known history, but  lies in the sphere of the unknown and legendary as well…and such legends have the power to live in human imaginations right now, to shape our conversations and thoughts. And the world we see changing around us is headed into a future of things uncertain for us, perhaps leading to a world of advanced technology, or perhaps a dystopian or post-apocalyptic collapse into decay and death. Speculating about what the consequences may be in the future of actions we’re taking now may be able to help us live in the present with greater knowledge and wisdom.

Fantasy and science fiction explore these other realities and help us understand the here and now in context of what could have been or what or could be.

But most important: This world is not all there is shouts speculative fiction, pointing out a void in our human lives. We long for things we’ve never seen as human beings, one of the odd and interesting things about us. And while it certainly can be true that human fiction, including speculative fiction, can be a sin-tainted expression of a corrupt imagination, the void in us longing for something else goes far beyond that. That void truly longs for God and the unknown elements of his created work, the Creator whose imagination far exceeds that of any human being, who has the power to create new worlds at a whim (whether he has exercised that power or not), who has hidden genuine mysteries in the mind-boggling physics of real world that surrounds us, and who will bring to an end most things we humans think are important now and establish his own rule.

Christians may feel we know our future eternity very well from the book of Revelation: pearly gates, throne of God, singing praises, New Jerusalem on Earth, etc. But we have every reason to believe eternity with God has got to include elements we’ve been told nothing about, if for no other reason because eternity is such a long time. And even a simple statement in Revelation that the streets are made of gold but transparent tells us that the the gold there will be significantly different from gold as we know it (assuming literal gold is meant–but a visual representation of figurative gold doesn’t make the future any less unexpected). There are many other details in Revelation like that, things that seem to make no sense but ultimately point to a future that will represent a world unlike our own. Again, there’s every reason to think the actual truth about eternity is that we only know the tip of the iceberg.

Science fiction and fantasy tap into a desire to see and experience things that amaze us, things that boggle our minds–which will be one part of what eternity will be like.

A fantasy world represented in an old magazine cover, now in the public domain.

And not only is the full reality of what world awaits us who have faith in Christ unknown, it’s unknown how long it will be before the end of time as we know it comes. Yes, some people act awfully certain that we are in the “End Times” and the end of this world will come very soon. But while I agree Christian believers should anticipate the Lord’s return, who can say for certain if our world won’t endure for twenty thousand more years before that happens–and what will happen in the meantime? Perhaps our world will become very different than it is now, as is seen in much of science fiction–perhaps we human beings will even explore other starts, only for those adventures to eventually die out, leaving the human race restricted to Planet Earth alone as the book of Revelation seems to indicate.

And who’s to say for certain that God hasn’t created other inhabited universes in parallel with our own, as occurs in most realms of fantasy? Perhaps discovering other universes will be part of what happens in eternity.

In the end, I create and publish the kinds of stories I do, not only to exercise in a positive way the faculty of imagination God gave me, but to reinforce the truth that this world is neither all there is, nor all there is to be. I also desire to spin visions of the unreal that specifically point fingers back toward the creator God, the author of all things. As much as I may engage in flights of whimsy at times, science fiction and fantasy as I know and love them for me rest on a bedrock foundation of this serious purpose.

I assume the same is true for most of you reading this post. But if you disagree or wish to add your own thoughts on the ultimate purpose of speculative fiction, please share your thoughts in the comments below.