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Check For Chips

My real question is this, can great writing and compelling stories really be marginalized?

Agent and writing instructor Donald Maass has a new book out entitled Writing 21st Century Fiction: High impact techniques for exceptional storytelling. He isn’t dealing specifically with Christian speculative fiction, certainly, but what he says about stories at large ought to matter to those who of us who write it.

First we need to decide if we do, in fact, aim to write “high impact fiction.” Maass describes this type of fiction:

Commercial fiction is thought to be candy for the masses, but the truth is that the masses are responding in huge numbers to something else entirely.

And what is that? That is the subject of this book. High impact comes from a combination of two factors: great stories and beautiful writing. High-impact novels utilize what is best about literary and commercial fiction. They embrace a dichotomy. They do everything well and as a result sell astoundingly. The publishing industry has a convenient term for these wonder books: literary/commercial fiction.

Great stories and beautiful writing. What more can a Christian author aim for? Why wouldn’t we want to write high-impact fiction?

But if Maass is right, high-impact fiction sells. In fact, this is the kind of writing that editors and readers in the 21st century are looking for. And buying.

What does that say about Christian speculative fiction? Could it be that our stories are too thin or unoriginal? That our writing is too colorless or pedantic?

We rarely talk about this aspect of our genre, but I wonder if we aren’t doing ourselves a great disservice to avoid the topic. Rather, it seems to me as if too many of us are walking around with a (varied-sized) chip on our shoulders, looking for someone to blame for the lack of publishing opportunities and/or sales of the books we write.

My real question is this, can great writing and compelling stories really be marginalized?

Ever since 2006 when Stuart Stockton and the rest of us original founders of Spec Faith started this endeavor, I believed that the primary need for the Christian science fiction and fantasy genres was promotion. If readers only knew about Karen Hancock’s books, for example, they’d eagerly buy them. And once they did, publishers would be only too happy to put out more of like kind.

What I discovered in the ensuing years has me wondering if I’ve missed something important. Too many writers seem weighed down by chips on their shoulders, saying in any number of ways that editors, awards organizations, blog tours, and writing organizations all discriminate against our genre.

The solution, rather than promoting one another, encouraging one another, working in concert to bring about the changes that could really make a difference, has seemed to be to alienate others and fragment further.

If, as some claim, writing Christian speculative fiction is trying to fit the square peg of speculative stories into the round hole of the niche evangelical Christian community, then breaking down that community into a smaller niche seems counterintuitive. Unless, of course, we are content to write only for a small, closed set of people.

If we are content to do so, then we should shake off the shoulder chip and admit we have made the choice to write for a specialized group.

If instead we are aiming to write high impact fiction, then I think we should put our energies into (a) learning how to write compelling stories with beautiful prose and (b) supporting others who have made the attempt to do the same thing.

In either case, I don’t see how keeping a chip on our shoulders helps further our aims or the aims of others who write something similar. We might all benefit by checking our shoulders to see if we’re carrying a chip without realizing it. Who needs the extra baggage.

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Kessie Carroll
Member

Good article! I’ve run across several books lately from up-and-coming Christian authors, and I think that if those authors keep writing books, eventually their fanbase will grow large enough to break out of the niche. One good book isn’t the key. Nor is two. But a pool of ten or twenty books–now that’s the ticket.
 
I’ve read discussions where people have said they don’t find an author until the author has put out ten or more books. Heck, my husband didn’t read Dresden until book 13 came out. Then he devoured them back to back over a period of several months. Dresden is one of those well-written compelling stories, and I see why it’s a bestseller. I can hardly stand to read them because I know he’s going to yank my emotions around. Dang it, I care about these oddball characters within a few chapters, and he’s going to put them through heck. But that’s why we keep reading. The character growth through the story arcs is tremendous. I only hope I can do that someday, too.

Galadriel
Guest

If a story is good enough,  people will want to share it. People are the best promotion tools out there, and an energized fandom is worth more than any ad campaign

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I might also point out that The Shack attracted people with overt appeals to faith. The author had an agenda and was unafraid to promote it. This was despite its cracked reflection of truth, and not a whole lot of beauty, at least not in my view — not enough to interest me further than the first few pages.

This could demonstrate that there is a place for, in some sense, overt stories that sell well. At the same time, The Shack‘s evangelistic overtness did not aid its writing style.

Carrie Padgett
Guest

You are so right, Becky! Spec is not the first genre I seek out but if a book is recommended to me, or I’ve heard buzz, or it’s by a friend ( 😉 ) I’ll read it. If it has great characters and a compelling story, I don’t care what genre it is, I’ll love it and talk it up to others. 

sally apokedak
Guest

Great post. 

I’ve heard it from Christian writers who can’t get published in the ABA and from children’s writers, and from horror writers, and from edgy writers. It’s so easy to assume it’s them and not us. That they are blind, not that we aren’t writing as well as we ought to be writing if we want to sell books.

Thanks for reminding me about Maass’s book. I’m going to buy it. 

Shannon McDermott
Guest

My real question is this, can great writing and compelling stories really be marginalized?

My answer would be: Certainly. And if not deliberately marginalized, then there are other reasons why a wonderful book may not be commercially successful. Quality does not guarantee success. As the Teacher wrote,

The race is not to the swift
    or the battle to the strong,
nor does food come to the wise
    or wealth to the brilliant
    or favor to the learned;
but time and chance happen to them all.

I agree with your conclusions wholeheartedly. Carrying chips on our shoulders isn’t Christian, and it isn’t attractive to anyone – the world, our fellow believers, God. There’s a lot to be said for just doing our best and helping others as we can.

And maybe, hard as it is, leaving the bestsellers to God.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Amen and amen.

“Do you see a man skillful in his work?  He will stand before kings; he will not stand before obscure men.”  (Proverbs 22:29)

But do we really believe it?  Depending on one’s perspective, that verse emits either a peal of encouragement or a dispiriting knell.  Does it really mean that novelists without readership are also without craft?  In many cases, I’d sadly answer ‘Yes.’

This is a difficult comment for me to write.  It piques one of my most-loathed pet peeves whenever an unexperienced, uninvested amateur dares pass judgement on the work of a professional whose livelihood depends on continued success.  By most measurements, I belong in the former category: I’m unpublished (and working to remedy that).  And yet, despite the wetness behind my professional ears, I fulfill the most important criterion for judgement-passing: I am a reader, and a voracious one at that.  And I can say almost without qualification that the Christian media world has incredibly shallow storytelling sensibilities.
“But wait!” you may exclaim, “We already agree with you!  After all, that’s why we’re here at Speculative Faith.  We want to tell the awesome stories the mainstream Christian media industry ignores!”  But if that was your knee-jerk response, then you missed the accented syllables.  I didn’t say “STORYtelling”; I said “storyTELLING.”  And that shift in emphasis makes a world of difference.

Two weeks ago, I slapped down ten bucks on the virtual Kindle ebook checkout counter in exchange for a recently-published novel promoted by this site.  I’d fallen in love with the cover illustration (hugely important!) and wanted to support an author whose worldview coincided with mine.

I couldn’t finish the first chapter.

Before you write me off as a snide, nitpicking killjoy, please know that I take no pleasure in this confession.  I was rooting for that novel, trying to give it a chance, and yet all those positive feelings fled with a horrible whoosh the instant I realized I’d spent money on a poorly-written book.  And at that point, not even the desire to justify my expenditure could compel me to click on the next page.  There was no longer any reason for me to keep reading.  Though the story’s substance may have been profound, its execution lacked style.  And truth without style – without beauty – is profoundly uncompelling.

“But standards for style are subject to personal taste,” you may object, “And yours appears to be ridiculously refined.  Go back to your ivory tower, and trouble us no more!”  Fair enough.  But this takes us back to Proverbs 22:29.  If the speculative fiction currently written by Christians is really all that great, then why hasn’t it gained more traction in the larger marketplace?  I postulate that the obscurity under which we Christian spec-fic writers (for I am one, though I am unpublished) languish is due not to the content of our stories but to their execution, or lack thereof.

It grieves me that my favorite modern fantasy author happens to be a Mormon.  (I obviously don’t read him for that reason, but rather because he consistently produces some of the most riveting and innovative fiction I’ve ever read.)  I don’t want Christians in the media industry to remain content with ‘niche markets’; I want us to lead the way by striving for excellence in our craft!

We need to expand our vocabularies.  We need to wrestle with sentence structure to the point where we can elicit specific emotions in our readers simply by the way in which we order words.  We need to enter the minds of our characters so deeply that they never again do anything without having a reason that makes sense to them.  We need to show instead of tell, to describe with specific detail, and to research what we write.  We need to master the fine art of the fresh, appropriate, unmixed metaphor.  We need to be able to conjure mood and atmosphere without any character having to say “I feel sad,” or “I feel happy,” or “I feel apprehensive.”  We need to learn about poetry, develop a working knowledge of accentual techniques, and know why it’s so much more powerful to end a given sentence on one word instead of on another.  We need to gain an intuition for pacing such that we instinctively know when it needs to pick up or slow down.  In short, we need to get really, really good at what we do.

Am I now laying unnecessary burdens on the backs of those who want nothing more than to glorify God?  Perhaps.  If you write as a form of personal worship and don’t really care whether you ever develop a readership, then you can probably disregard this exhortation.  But if you write for the purpose of reaching readers, this stuff is crucial.  Last month I wrote in a comment on this site that the word “literary” shouldn’t be taken seriously.  But that’s because it – at least in academia – has ceased to be a description of quality and has become instead a description of content (a work is only “literary” if it seethes with introspective ambiguity).  But just because the establishment literati have twisted the language of criticism into a convenient tool for ideological bludgeoning doesn’t mean that quality – actual, objective quality – has ceased to be important.  And just because works of sophomoric drivel routinely swamp the bestseller lists doesn’t mean that God doesn’t care about the depth of our writing style.

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward.  You are serving the Lord Christ.”  (Colossians 3:23-24)
The God Who sprinkled deep heaven with stars, Who traced the path of fractured light, Who carved the canyons with a liquid knife, and Who ground the lens of my eye to let in but a pinprick of the afterglow of His creative might … that God cares about beauty.  We should, too.

Kessie Carroll
Member

Austin: I think I know what book you’re talking about. I was excited about the cover, the concept, the author. Then I read the Amazon sample and my enthusiasm died. I wanted to cry. I didn’t read the whole book so I can’t leave a review (it must get better later on, right?). I just can’t bring myself to pay money for something that poorly written. (Of course, that didn’t stop people leaving terrible reviews about Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy, just based on the Amazon sample.)
 
You’re also right about improving our writing. The professional blogs out there are always talking about upping your game. You have to be constantly improving because you know your competition will be. Christians need to run that gauntlet and make our work shine. I’ve read some good stuff that’s up and coming, though, so I know it’s out there.
 
But so many Christian books I’ve read, I’ve only imagined what my critique group would have done to that manuscript. It’d look like feeding time in the shark tank.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Wise of you to preview the sample first.  😉

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

That’s exactly what I was thinking: submit a review. We do want to promote great stories, but we also, alas, recognize that some stories are not so good. Are all reviewers the same? No, but we believe in the marketplace ideas. Good reviews, and good stories, should rise to the top; bad reviews and bad stories, not so much.

Try your “luck”: Submit a Novel Review.

Austin Gunderson
Member

It’d be quite unfair of me to write a scathing review of a book I myself was unwilling to finish.  After all, it’s possible (though highly unlikely) that the writing improves as the story progresses.  But, regardless, it’s simply not worth it to me to slog through a novel for review purposes when each and every sentence begs pitiably for better construction.  And that’s the problem, isn’t it?  Unless a book rises above a given threshold of quality, quality-conscious people simply won’t read it (unless they enjoy being critical or just want to feel better about their own writing).  And if they don’t read it, who will be left to inform the author of the weaknesses in his or her prose?  It’s a self-perpetuating cycle of mediocrity.

As for the Spec Faith reviews of the book in question, I consulted them before making my purchase.  They were glowing.  Perhaps that discrepancy of reaction means I’m just on a different wavelength than most of the readership here, but I don’t think so.  I read a lot of ‘secular’ fantasy.  I can tell when effort has not been expended toward the development of a high-quality writing style.  And my suspicion is that the Christian readers who contribute book-reviews to this site may be a little … dare I say it? … biased. I think it’s entirely possible that at least some readers, ecstatic at finding fantasy or sci-fi with a Christian worldview, are willing to shrug off glaring inadequacies of style in their enthusiastic approbation of the corresponding content.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I have wondered about writing anonymous reviews. It is something we would need to discuss. So far all our reviews have been named, yet fairly positive. At the same time, there are some books I feel that I, personally, would prefer reviewing anonymously. Right now I’ve only reviewed books I have absolutely loved and want to see promoted. (If I haven’t reviewed yours, it’s because I have not read it, or have read it and simply couldn’t get too excited about it!)

Having such reviews published here could prevent some overt flaming and snarky un-Christlikeness — while also telling the truth about frankly bad stories.

All Speculative Faith reviews are here.

Paul Lee
Member

I also have read a lot of ‘secular’ fantasy.  It would be unfair to say that the CSF community makes lousy, derivative fantasy novels without acknowledging that there are also real, objective failures on the shelves from the biggest mainstream publishers and non-Christian authors.  I once borrowed a fantasy novel from my public library that was so sloppy and awkward, I couldn’t even imagine how the lofty publishing company Tor would ever have touched it.
 
The truth is that my expectations are lower for a novel that I would find here.  I’ve been disappointed with a greater percentage of CSF novels that I’ve read than with mainstream speculative fiction.  Objectively, I think I’ve been disappointed with most of the CSF novels I’ve ever read, and I think I now approach them with the expectation that I’m going to have to mine and dig to find something to enjoy in them.
 
We really need to be writing more negative reviews.  I hate to be the one to do it, but I should, some day.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Becky,

Yes.  Storytelling is essential.  Plotting and pacing and worldbuilding and character-development are the bones of a story in the way that writing-style is its skin.  Both are necessary for healthful completeness, but I rant about the skin because it’s the easiest organ to physic.  It’s visible, exposed, obvious.  While plot problems can be buried deep and may not rise to the surface for many chapters, style problems can be immediately recognized and dealt with.  If an author hasn’t even expended the relatively minimal effort required to at least make his or her writing look good, it’s a safe bet to assume the story in question is invertebrate.

As others on this thread have already stated, poor writing is a natural result of a failure to read great books.  We learn from those who’ve gone before.  Everything I know about writing I learned from reading books.  Everything.  I cannot describe the number of times I’ve leapt up from my seat bursting with mingled joy and envy, wishing I’d been the first to think up a particular turn of phrase.  I read some authors for their powers of description, some for their comic timing, some for their mastery of pacing, some for their gift with metaphor, some for their complexity of plotting, and some for their lovable characters.  I will never be a Tolkien or Sanderson or Cornwell or Herriot or Williams or Rothfuss or Lewis.  But by steeping myself in their works, I can internalize the strengths of their styles and distill it all down into something that is uniquely mine.  If I’m oblivious to the rest of the field, I not only open myself to the danger of thinking I’m something new when I’m actually something old and tired, I also have no depth of inspirational experience from which to drink and draw.

I absolutely agree with you that great stories are recognizable as such no matter their genre.  But is it hubris to think oneself capable of producing a “great story”?  Maybe it is, and, then again, maybe it isn’t.  Personally, it’s none of my concern whether anything I write ends up catching fire and exploding into the public eye.  That’s not something I have a lot of control over – at least not yet.  My job right now is to write the very best novel I’m capable of writing.  Right now, I need to be faithful in the small things.  Even things as ‘small’ as sentence structure.

P.S.  It gladdens me to hear of that new book you loved.  I just might read it.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Bainespal,

Your point is well taken.  The ‘secular’ publishing arena is indeed sprinkled with unhealthy doses of mediocrity.  Christian spec-fic is not exceptional in that regard.  But that’s no excuse for Christians.  We who dare to claim the likes of Tolkien and Lewis as our literary progenitors should be leading the way when it comes to style instead of hanging back, contented to coast on the strength of our content.

Beautiful writing alone provides no guarantee of commercial success.  Far too many variables influence the mood of the public for any such formula to be anything but silly. But I feel confident in asserting that commercial success will never come to the genre of Christian spec-fiction until individual authors begin viewing the quality of their writing as just as much of a witness as its content.  Beauty in writing is usually just as important – just as capable of bringing glory to God – as truth.

sally apokedak
Guest

I should add: I haven’t read reviews here at Spc Faith since I haven’t been interested in reading Christian Spec fic books. So I don’t know how honest their reviews are. I was just going on the comment above in which Austin said he thought the reviews were glowing and the book was bad.
I think that on any review site, if the reviews are not anonymous and if the reviewers are fellow writers, there is going to be a pressure to review kindly. We are going to look for good things to say and we are going to forgive some of the things that were not perfect.
But I’m not sure how the Spec Faith site is doing on reviews in general, because I haven’t read any of them.

sally apokedak
Guest

I keep saying what we need is a review journal for Christian books that does anonymous reviews the way that Kirkus does. The reviewers would have to be unpaid at first, but they would have a bio in the journal. All the reviews would be run without a byline, though, so no one would no who was writing the reviews.
That’s the only way we’ll ever really have unbiased reviews, I think. 
If I set up a review journal, would any of you volunteer to give to the community by offering a free anonymous review once a quarter?
If circulation grew, the reviewers could be paid eventually, because the journal would sell advertising, just like the other journals do. 
But maybe we don’t need that. Have any of you been to Novel Crossing. Here’s a review that seems pretty honest. Maybe we can get some spec fic reviewed there.

Fred Warren
Member

High impact comes from a combination of two factors: great stories and beautiful writing. High-impact novels utilize what is best about literary and commercial fiction. They embrace a dichotomy. They do everything well and as a result sell astoundingly.

I think this overstates the case. Many, if not most, bestsellers don’t do everything well, but they do make a connection with their audience, and the reasons for this are both obscure and inconsistent. The public’s heart is a moving target.

…can great writing and compelling stories really be marginalized?
My answer would be: Certainly. And if not deliberately marginalized, then there are other reasons why a wonderful book may not be commercially successful. Quality does not guarantee success.

And that’s the thing. Quality is important, but it’s not the answer in and of itself. Neither is marketing, networking, biblical congruence, professional publishing, an eye-catching cover, or a super-positive attitude. Even the best books don’t reach everyone. Sometimes it’s being in the right place at the right time with the right story, even if it’s not a masterpiece. Sometimes, as Kessie noted, it’s a matter of patience and persistence.

Too many writers seem weighed down by chips on their shoulders, saying in any number of ways that editors, awards organizations, blog tours, and writing organizations all discriminate against our genre.

Once again, I don’t think this is an imaginary phenomenon or the expression of some kind of persecution complex. However, I don’t think it’s discrimination so much as they’re all telling us the same thing and we’re not listening. We aren’t making a connection with our readers, and I think it’s about more than action-driven plots and lovely turns of phrase.
Christian fiction has a quality problem in part because Christians don’t do criticism well, on either side of the critique. We’re either too timid of causing offense, or overzealous in our crusade for perfection. Too easily bruised, or too bullheaded and self-satisfied. Somehow, we can’t seem to find a balance. There’s a place for frank and truthful illumination of shortcomings in our communities and our writing that doesn’t pat people on the heads for work that isn’t ready for prime-time or devolve into personal attacks and snarky one-upsmanship. We don’t get better because we don’t think we need to, and nobody’s telling us otherwise, if we’re even listening.

If, as some claim, writing Christian speculative fiction is trying to fit the square peg of speculative stories into the round hole of the niche evangelical Christian community, then breaking down that community into a smaller niche seems counterintuitive. Unless, of course, we are content to write only for a small, closed set of people.

I’d submit that this is precisely where we are right now.
I don’t think anyone goes into writing with the intent of creating something shoddy. Everyone’s trying their best, and that’s commendable, but our best is a work in progress, and we have to recognize that for most of us, our best isn’t yet good enough. Christian spec fic is a niche market within a niche market. It’s a small pool, and small pools can become too comfortable. We buy each other’s books and trade “critiques” that are mostly affirmations and then wonder why the rest of the world (or the rest of the Christian fiction community) doesn’t understand how great we are.
Christian spec fic also tends to be derivative. We see what’s popping in the general market and try to “sanctify” it for a Christian audience. The trouble is, we tend to be even further behind the original innovation than the followers in the general market, and we create an even paler imitation. Passion is good, passion and originality are better.

Fred Warren
Member

In a similar vein, check out Mike Duran’s column today, and the comments.
http://mikeduran.com/2012/10/are-christian-spec-zines-struggling/

Fred Warren
Member

And Mike continues on a wavelength very close to our own…again, read the comments as well as the post: http://mikeduran.com/2012/10/is-it-worth-writing-for-free/

Kat Heckenbach
Member

Well, Fred just came in here before I could comment and made anything I was thinking of saying feel completely clunky. Why must he be so eloquent? 😛

That is to say, I agree with him :).

I have been posting a lot on this topic, or derivatives of it, all over the place, in comments and on my own blog. Some of what I say could definitely be taken as a criticism of the Christian publishing industry, but I actually feel they are only doing their jobs. The Christian market is what it is, and the CBA is serving it and serving it well. Speculative authors complain that they have no chance–and they are right in many cases–but it’s not an intentional bias. It’s not that they hate us, it’s that they don’t know what to *do* with us. They don’t know how to market us, don’t know how to reach our readers.

 Becky, You said, “If, as some claim, writing Christian speculative fiction is trying to fit the square peg of speculative stories into the round hole of the niche evangelical Christian community, then breaking down that community into a smaller niche seems counterintuitive. ” 

Could you clarify that for me? I read that as meaning you think we’re barking up the wrong tree, trying to take a share of the CBA market, taking a tiny sliver of an already niche audience. I happen to agree with that (if that is what you mean.) My experience is this: Most Christians who are fans of spec-fic either don’t realize there is Christian spec-fic out there (that was me until only a few years ago), or they assume it’s preachy and turn their noses up to it (and let’s face it, plenty of it is). They don’t want the Christian version of Harry Potter or Ender’s Game, they want Harry Potter and Ender’s Game. 

I’m not saying Christian spec-fic isn’t a viable genre, but it is definitely a small niche.  And you are right, walking around angry about it is not going to make the market bigger. Writing great books may actually bring some attention to the genre, but we’re not going to convert the current Christian fiction reading demographic–we’re going to have to find the spec-fic readers out there, and most of them, Christian or not, aren’t shopping in the Christian aisles.
 
I also want to clarify I’m all for supporting the CBA. But I think their claim on Christianity is the problem. The “all books from a Christian worldview must present themselves thus” thing needs to let up. Spec fic is simply a different beast than romance and historical, and our audience is of a different type. I think that is where the “persecution complex” comes from. The idea that we’re somehow less Christian if we do things differently, but we’re not allowed to break from the core group and claim to be “Christian fiction” without the CBA stamp of approval. In the secular market, there are organizations for all different genres, and spec fic has their own (SFWA). But the CBA seems compelled toward homogeny. 

Fred Warren
Member

The Christian market is what it is, and the CBA is serving it and serving it well. Speculative authors complain that they have no chance–and they are right in many cases–but it’s not an intentional bias. It’s not that they hate us, it’s that they don’t know what to *do* with us. They don’t know how to market us, don’t know how to reach our readers.

What the very elegant eloquent elegant and eloquent Kat said. I think that those of us with contacts on both sides of the fence would like to see more effort put forth toward trying to understand us and our audience. When we get blank stares from people in the industry who do market research and track demographics (or should), something’s amiss.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I think it is just as likely that CSF writers saying “we write weird” creates the niche we decry.

Yes, and in that we not only shoot ourselves in the feet, but are inaccurate.

 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Becky, I really appreciate this piece. It’s helped sharpen some of my own wondering about this topic, some of which I’ll mention below.

A little history may help for others: I attended my first Christian fiction writers’ conference in 2006, and joined with Speculative Faith 1.0 shortly after. (I’m still not sure how that happened!) Slowly the old version of the site declined. In 2010 we rebooted, and that’s the site you are reading today. It’s also grown beyond a blog.

All that to say that I may have a bit more of an “outsider’s” perspective. Five to six years ago I had to get caught up on the “debate.”

What I saw then, and what I continue to see, is this. There seems to be a lot of advocacy for Christian speculative stories — or just speculative stories among Christians — that assume we already know why we need this or that we need this. Far less do we see the kind of eager, winsome story-promotion you mentioned.

I see promotion, yes. But it’s for me and my book more than we and our books.

I’m not sure whether this is an unintentional side effect or inevitable in this case.

We also rarely see winsome, grace-based arguments for why these stories glorify God just as well as, or better than, “contemporary” Christian fiction. That’s one thing I appreciate about Speculative Faith: the faith in the title. No, we’re not about hijacking great stories for cheap “spiritual” reasons such as Moral Improvement or Getting People Saved or Countering the Culture. In a sense, great stories are their own reward, because great stories, in theme and form, glorify the Storyteller.

I wonder if perhaps many assume, “yes, yes, we already know about the Bible and faith and why we read or write,” and then prefer to move on to the details about craft and marketing and query letters and publishing.

And I can’t help but wonder if perhaps that is why God is keeping this a niche. (Yet I reject a “prosperity theology” notion that if we do everything right, we’ll take off.)

Regardless of why, it can’t help us grow as His adopted sons or daughters, and as readers (and aspiring authors), to have chips on our shoulders.

As others have pointed out, even a truly great story may remain in obscurity for reasons known only to God. He appoints kings; He also appoints poets. He decides whether to raise up a Billy Graham or a Randy Alcorn or a James Dobson or a (insert Christian teacher/leader name I left out), and then “leave” other children of His in relative obscurity, even though they might have arguably more gifts.

I’m in full agreement with Austin up there. Great stories matter little if we don’t communicate them well and in winsome ways.

Truth is beautiful. And beauty is truthful. We can’t separate the two.

If we don’t do both, we’re only sharing things that are close to ugly lies.

I’ve read plenty a novel (some of which are by authors featured on Speculative Faith!) that I would reluctantly need to review negatively, if I did review it, because of this simple reason: interesting concept, poor execution.

I’m afraid many Christian authors are either having off days (or off-years, off-books, etc.), or else simply aren’t that good. More than likely, we’re still recovering from a wrongfully “pragmatic” view of arts and literature. Deep down we suspect our motive should be, “Write whatever works,” and then add to that: “Whatever works …” “to make a clean story,” “to make it suitable for specific Christian markets,” “to keep it moral,” “to entertain,” “to send a message,” and such.

My fear is that in combating these errors, we’re committing more of the same.

It’s the same wrong axiom, yet fleshed out like this: Whatever works to …

  • … to make the story “Gritty.”
  • … to make its morality Trendily Vague and Challenging. (Despite filmgoers growing a bit tired of the overall-fantastic Dark Knight trilogy’s “grittiness” and affectionately parodied Batman even as they threw their support behind the more-colorful and traditional hero story in a film like The Avengers.)
  • … to Entertain.
  • … to Send a Message (e.g., Christian authors and stories are really no different from the ones you have already been loving!).

The original Christian-writing “model” has been utilitarian (though not as often as perceived), and I fear some SF authors lean the same way, just with different colors.

How to begin fixing this? Here I am just shooting from the lip:

  1. Follow Becky’s recommendations. Work together, not apart.

    It’s not “Me and my novel versus The World and/or Christian Publishers and/or Those Who Just Don’t Get It.”

    It’s, “We and our stories versus obscurity and misunderstandings, yet with God on our side, if we are actively on His side, seeking to glorify Him in all our stories, including craft and content.”

  2. Explore stories beyond the modern favorites — in fantasy, either C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien; in science fiction, Firefly shows or Orson Scott Card. For what higher standards were they aiming? SF contributor Adam Ross reveals more in his two-part series: Beyond Inklings Imitations.
  3. Explore the Story that is even beyond those. Which is the first and greatest Story, on which all others are based? The Bible. Why do we not study and delight in and outwardly revel more in the wonders of this Book?
  4. Just plain read. I sometimes wonder whether more people are committing the same error I did back in 2006, when an editor kindly set me straight: if you’re going to try to write sci-fi or something like it, you need to actually read and watch the stuff. And when you read something you like, promote it. Don’t simply salvage it for the spare parts to use in your novel.
  5. This is simply personal: no more medieval-set stories with poor orphaned children who are actually the long-lost heirs to thrones and of course Ancient Prophecy. I do enjoy a variation on the Christ-myth, but key word: variation!

All right, rant over. Thanks again for inspiring it, Becky.

Fred Warren
Member

Good stuff, Stephen, but just one thing…whenever you use the word “winsome,” I see this:

 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Earlier today I posted a lengthy comment that included an excerpt from The Great Divorce by C. S. Lewis. Here’s more of that excerpt, along with my introduction.

In this admitted allegorical tale, Lewis himself is taken via “airbus” to a vision of Heaven, or rather Heaven’s outskirts, in which Heaven’s citizens confront the residents of the dull, boring, gray slums of Hell (symbolizing the real world choices we have while living). In this chapter, a heavenly Spirit confronts the “ghost” of a citizen of Hell. The ghost is awed by the landscape of Heaven, but wants to paint it — neglecting the Source.

We were standing close to some bushes and beyond them I saw one of the Solid People and a Ghost who had apparently just that moment met. The outlines of the Ghost looked vaguely familiar, but I soon realized that what I had seen on earth was not the man himself but photographs of him in the papers. He had been a famous artist.

“God!” said the Ghost, glancing round the landscape.

“God what?” asked the Spirit.

“What do you mean, ‘God what’?” asked the Ghost.

“In our grammer God is a noun.”

“Oh-I see. I only meant ‘By Gum’ or something of the sort. I meant . . . well, all this. It’s . . . it’s … I should like to paint this.”

“I shouldn’t bother about that just at present if I were you.”

“Look here; isn’t one going to be allowed to go on painting?”

“Looking comes first.”

“But I’ve had my look. I’ve seen just what I want to do. God! — I wish I’d thought of bringing my things with me!”

The Spirit shook his head, scattering light from his hair as he did so. “That sort of thing’s no good here,” he said.

“What do you mean?” said the Ghost.

“When you painted on earth — at least in your earlier days — it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too. But here you are having the thing itself. It is from here that the messages came. There is no good telling us about this country, for we see it already. In fact we see it better than you do.”

“Then there’s never going to be any point in painting here?”

“I don’t say that. When you’ve grown into a Person (it’s all right, we all had to do it) there’ll be some things which you’ll see better than anyone else. One of the things you’ll want to do will be to tell us about them. But not yet. At present your business is to see. Come and see. He is endless. Come and feed.”

There was a little pause. “That will be delightful,” said the Ghost presently in a rather dull voice.

“Come, then,” said the Spirit, offering it his arm.

“How soon do you think I could begin painting?” it asked.

The Spirit broke into laughter. “Don’t you see you’ll never paint at all if that’s what you’re thinking about?” he said.

“What do you mean?” asked the Ghost.

“Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country.”

“But that’s just how a real artist is interested in the country.”

“No. You’re forgetting,” said the Spirit. “That was not how you began. Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about light.”

“Oh, that’s ages ago,” said the Ghost. “One grows out of that. Of course, you haven’t seen my later works. One becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.”

“One does, indeed. I also have had to recover from that. It was all a snare. Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they are also dangerous stimulants. Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from love of the thing he tells, to love of the telling till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him. For it doesn’t stop at being interested in paint, you know. They sink lower — become interested in their own personalities and then in nothing but their own reputations.”

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D. M. Dutcher
Member

I don’t think Maass anticipated the trifecta of Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Fifty Shades of Grey. My guess would be he wrote the book back when Oprah’s Book Club convinced women that reading Franzen and Morrison was okay.

I agree that Christian writers need to up their game, and believe me, I think all Christian writers worry about being mediocre or having off days. But publishers carry books they think will sell first, and are well written second if that. Also, I’m not really sure what the vibe is here. I mean, I’m getting the sense between this and mike’s article that people expect Christian writers to somehow take on the secular market while still retaining a Christian message. I don’t see this working very often.

I’m still mulling over both this and Mike’s post and comments though. There’s some conflicting messages here-accept you write in a small niche, but don’t complain when that niche is marginalized: instead write better books and somehow that will overcome marginalization, because great stories can’t be. Oh, and some ambivalence about even being in it at all. I’m not sure what to make of it.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

Thanks for summing it up Rebecca.

I can’t agree with point #2. I think people are doing what I might label the Tolkien problem, and judging works by the biggest drawing ones out there. There are some excellent stories which do not transcend genre and become mainstream. Stephen Donaldson’s The Mirror of her Dreams comes to mind, or especially in this paranormal boom, Charles De Lint and his urban fantasy. Christians have a bad tendency to elevate the few mainstream writers (Tolkien, Lewis, O’Connor, and Percy) while forgetting that not all works in a genre will transcend it, or even be that good.

And that’s okay. Yeah, Christian fiction has some problems, but a lot of the books are from first or second time authors. It’s kind of unfair to expect them to be equal to people who have ten or more books written, or can’t get the best editors in their genre to help them grow. Or to expect them to somehow pull a C.S. Lewis. I’ve read a fair amount of indie and published Christian SF, and quality-wise it’s been over the map. But it’s the same with normal spec fiction. For every Tolkien, there’s a Piers Anthony. Or there is someone like Timothy Zahn, who writes very well yet isn’t going to be counted a top-tier genre busting author.

I guess I was just confused because it seems like opinion has been shifting a lot. Embrace the niche/accept the niche/rail against marginalization of niche/transcend the niche/go crossover or mainstream. There are competing ideas, and trying to prep to write crossover fiction is going to make for different books than embracing small-press Christian spec fiction.

Fred Warren
Member

I guess I was just confused because it seems like opinion has been shifting a lot. Embrace the niche/accept the niche/rail against marginalization of niche/transcend the niche/go crossover or mainstream. There are competing ideas, and trying to prep to write crossover fiction is going to make for different books than embracing small-press Christian spec fiction.

Exactly. This entire discussion, and Stephen’s current series, are reflective of a “churn” about what our strategy should be as Christian spec-fic writers or enthusiasts. The prevailing mood is characterized by frustration and confusion. We have a handle on truths that the world needs, so people should be falling over each other to read our stories…but they’re not. Why? What are we lacking?
So, we begin to throw spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. Maybe we’re not skilled enough. Maybe we’re writing for the wrong audience. Maybe we’ve acquired a reputation that drives readers away. Maybe people can’t find our stories. Maybe we’re not supporting our fellow writers enough. Maybe we have a bad attitude. Maybe we lack experience. Maybe we’re impatient. Maybe we’re ignorant about how the market works. Maybe we don’t understand what attracts readers. Maybe we’re the victims of a massive conspiracy to keep us on the fringe. Maybe we’re sabotaging ourselves because we enjoy being on the fringe. Maybe God doesn’t want us to sell too many books. Maybe Satan is trying to limit our influence. Maybe our readers lack the spiritual insight and good taste to appreciate our work. Maybe we’re writing for the wrong reasons. Maybe we’re failing to connect truth and beauty into true worship. Maybe we’re not reading enough. Maybe we’re reading the wrong books. Maybe we’re mired in hero worship of Lewis and Tolkien. Maybe we haven’t defined our genre well enough. Maybe we’ve created a genre that’s too confining. Maybe we’re spending too much time arguing and not enough time writing.
I don’t have the answer. Maybe it’s all of the above, some subset, or something else. All we can do is keep working and give it our best.

sally apokedak
Guest

All of the above, yes. And what a great comment.
In the end I think we have to judge each book individually instead of lumping them altogether.
We have all read some bad books in the CBA and most of us have read some good ones.
I believe we sometimes say, “CBA books are bad,” because we don’t want to name the specific books we think are bad because we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.
But you’re right about there being many possible reasons for a lack of sales. 
 
Once I was sick and a friend told me I was sick because of unconfessed sin in my life. I asked her what the sin was and she said she didn’t see the sin, she just knew it was there because I wouldn’t have been sick if I wasn’t sinning. I told her if she saw the sin she should point it out. Otherwise she ought not assume things.
 
We can’t say that a book is lacking because there are no sales. But we can, and we should, when we see a lack in someone’s book, point it out. 
 
Maybe.
 
I mean…it’s not necessarily sin if their books aren’t good, but it’s like telling them they have spinach in their teeth. It’s a kindness to tell them.
 
I bet we’ve all seen poor craftsmanship in some books written by people we know and not pointed it out. I’ve written to two author’s privately and told them what my problem was with their published books. They both took it graciously and I don’t believe they held it against me. I don’t know why I haven’t done that more often. I guess because I hate to always be playing the know-it-all.
 
You’re conclusion that we need to do our best is a good one. But how will others grow if we don’t help them? We are all blind to our own sins and we are all blind to our own badness in our books. It’s not like I think I can write better the guy I’m critiquing. It’s just that I can see his shortcomings better than he can, because he’s too close to the work. 
 
We need others to tell us what sucks in our work and we need to tell them what sucks in theirs.