After writing eight novels and numerous short stories of a mostly speculative nature, I made the decision last November to take time off from being myself. Yet this did not quell my creativity. Instead, I shrouded myself in a cloak of secrecy rivaled only by J.K. Rowling’s astonishing transformation into war-veteran-turned-writer Robert Galbraith…nah, just kidding. I conjured up a pen name and had an author photo taken where my face is partially hidden, though anyone who knows me would recognize me right away.
The reason is because I wanted to dip my toes into a pool that I had previously only taken the time to mock or ignore: contemporary Christian Western romance. Yes, you read that right. The self-described Most Tattooed Christian Author who wrote those scary-looking books is now writing heartwarming stories about girls and boys and horses.
Now, I should say that this has been my plan for a while. Unlike most authors, and contrary to sound business and branding practices, my goal is to write in as many genres as possible (I’m coming for you, Amish fiction!). After my latest book release as myself, which was a slab of violent bleakness, I needed to “go into the light,” so to speak. All of my books except one are identifiably Christian fiction, though the covers and subject matter give many readers pause. Since I had made up my mind to try something sweet and romantic, I figured I’d go all in. I wasn’t going to just write one book; I was going to do a trilogy, with each book being a standalone novel but all of the stories sharing similar elements. The titles are similar, the cover designs are similar, and each book is about an all-American girl and her horses in a small Midwestern town. All in, remember?
I definitely had some reservations about taking this creative path. For one thing, I’m a guy, and the books I normally write are pretty guy-centric. People advised me to take a female pen name but again, contrary to sound business and branding practices, I stuck with a male name. I wanted to be able to do book signings and set up tables at outdoor festivals. I also wanted to be a bit rebellious, which has characterized my writing career thus far anyway.
When I sat down to write, I was starting with a cold engine. I had read very few books in this genre, I’m not a very “mushy” guy to begin with, and I knew next to nothing about horses. Fortunately, the folks at my church came to my rescue. A kind lady who has a few horses showed me the ropes and answered my questions, and I started watching horse videos online and horse movies on Netflix. I’ve always enjoyed the challenge of writing about things I don’t know much about (again, contrary to sound business and branding practices), but that’s what makes it fun. It’s almost like I’m giving myself a dare. I also enlisted some church friends as cover models and the photographer, which made it feel more like a group project rather than just me flying solo.
To my surprise, the story gushed out of my brain and I finished the manuscript in record time. Less than three months after typing “Chapter One,” I had a professionally edited and professionally photographed finished novel. After taking a few days to rest, I started writing the next one, going deeper into the equestrian world to continue my challenge. I also began promoting my new release, which meant targeting different readers than I was used to.
Let me make a confession here: I’ve always been a bit dismissive of sweet romance and chick lit and contemporary Christian fiction in general. In my perception, it’s usually too light and fluffy and simplistic and sanitized. I know a lot of readers of this blog and speculative Christian fiction feel the same way. We’re like punk rock or heavy metal musicians who turn up our nose at bubble gum pop or country music, even though they play to sold-out arenas while our band jams in underground clubs to an audience of twenty. Yet as I wrote my squeaky-clean, heartwarming stories of faith, family, and love, I found myself gaining a new appreciation for these genres and the people that read them. And writing these books has been like drinking a tall, cold glass of fresh lemonade. We speculative fiction readers and writers often chastise mainstream Christian fiction for not being “real” enough, because real life isn’t a perfect family on a beautiful farm underneath an azure sky way out in God’s country. Who says? Plenty of people live simple, gentle lives, yet they still face struggles and hardships, as do the characters in these kinds of books.
Now, I’m not saying that every sci-fi or fantasy reader who snubs mainstream Christian fiction needs to go out and give Amish paradise a try. Even though I’m writing as someone else for at least six more months to finish the trilogy, I’m still making plans for my next book as Mark Carver, which will be true to form in every way. All I’m saying is that it’s nice to see things from a different point of view sometimes, and unlike the Goth teenager who is afraid to admit that she likes Taylor Swift, it’s okay to let everyone know that you’re broadening your horizons. It’s a great big book world out there…