Fantasy—Not Your Leftover Stale Bread

Why spend time dissecting fantasy and categorizing the different types? Besides the reason I quoted last week from The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature, edited by Philip Martin (The Writer Books), I think there is knowledge that readers (and CBA […]
| Oct 23, 2006 | No comments |

Why spend time dissecting fantasy and categorizing the different types? Besides the reason I quoted last week from The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature, edited by Philip Martin (The Writer Books), I think there is knowledge that readers (and CBA publishers) may need: not all fantasy revolves around a quest.

One of the unfortunate impressions seems to be that all fantasy is the same, that it is derivative and stale.

First, to a certain extent, all stories are derivative, which is why writers quote from time to time the mantra that there are no new stories. But beyond that, “stale” is a little hard to swallow when there has been so little “fresh” work that can be classified as “Christian.” When will Christian romance be considered “stale” for example? Only when readers decide to stop buying it. So, in order for Christian fantasy to be considered stale, there first has to be an adequate supply for readers to get tired of.

To get to the point of “an adequate supply,” it seems to me we must first expose the misconception that all Christian fantasy is alike. In truth, there is much variety within the genre; not every story is a rehash of Tolkien’s tale, not even other epic quests.

Before I jump into the categories Martin identifies, just a personal note of discovery about the truth of this point. On a writers’ discussion board, a number of us in the SFF thread responded to a topic about our work in progress. I’m not sure now what the driving question was—maybe, what is your pitch? Regardless, one thing that struck me was the amazing variety. No two stories sounded remotely alike. Were there some elements that we shared? In the most remote way, as all mysteries have something unknown to discover, as all romances have two people who fall in love. Of course fantasy has evil and good. That’s really its most basic requirement, but there are SO many ways stories can work within that “quilting frame.”

High fantasy. This is perhaps what people think of when they hear the term. These stories have settings that sound like Europe in the Middle Ages, with knights and kings, castles and cottages. These stories are rooted in classical mythology and “tackle head-on the question of Good and Evil.”

Adventure Fantasy. These stories encompass a large variety, from swordplay to talking animals (or talking stuffed animals). The cohesive element is the desire of the character(s) for personal adventure, as opposed to engaging in the lofty purpose or great cause of high fantasy. Martin, concerning Evil in adventure fantasy:

Evil in adventure fantasy is not grand Evil personified, but a more obscure cousin: Chaos. In adventure fantasy, forces of evil (or uncertainty) are everywhere in never-ending supply: dragons, sorcerers, scheming barbarians, stalking Heffalumps. Unlike big Evil, Chaos is fluid, constant.

Fairy Tales. These stories are more directly designed to deal with heart issues: fear, courage, greed, love. From The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature:

Fairy tales tend to deal with personal transformation. In fairy tales, people (or creatures) change in dramatic, often miraculous ways, and this is at the heart of the story. The ugly duckling is transformed into a beautiful swan, the toad into a prince, a cinder-maid into a princess, the fool into a wise person. Also, fairy tales explore on a very individual level the invisible boundary between the safety of home and the dangers that lie beyond (and that occasionally force their way into the cottage.) …

Fairy tales look out for the warmth of the hearth—or cottage, village, or protective castle walls—to the unknown, possibly evil world of the dark forest—the foreign land, the big city, the land of the wealthy, the odd strangers, the wilderness realm of monsters.

Martin identifies two other types which I’ll take a look at next time.

The Quest To Write Soul-Opening Speculative Fiction For A Broader Audience

I added the following about how I write in the comments section of yesterday’s post: The character and plot come from my head, but how I shape them comes from my heart and soul, where the themes that speak to […]
| Oct 20, 2006 | No comments |

I added the following about how I write in the comments section of yesterday’s post:

The character and plot come from my head, but how I shape them comes from my heart and soul, where the themes that speak to me dwell.

It was a hastily written comment, which is essentially true. I might, if I could edit it, write this instead:

A character and premise spring to mind, and then I think out some basic plot sequences, brainstorming. But how I take those bits of people and places and events and shape them, and what goes into the interior monologue and dialogue and reactions, and the weight I give to certain events, that’s all shaped by the heart and soul of me, the emotional and needy parts, the fearful and dark parts, the aspiring and God-infused parts. Those are the places where my themes dwell and from where they speak to me.

It’s a clarification. Wordier and clearer, but essentially the same.

Stories are created, like people, from more than one parent. There’s the calculating, the thinking, the devising part. Then there are the instinctive and emotional and mysterious centers. When the first one is in the ascendant, the story may be technically fine, but it will lack fire. If the second is ascendant, it may become sappy and overindulgent and purple and rambling. Reason and passion. Thought and feeling. Calculation and spontaneity.

I think it’s a no-brainer that the reason some stories with poor technique sell like mad is because they pluck, strongly, an emotional chord in readers. They fill a trembling need or a palpitating want. (Whoa, I’m treading on purple soil.) A story with poor characterization and dialogue could still please a vast audience through some inventiveness, some cleverness of plot, that stimulates the brain in a fresh way. Or a relatively dull tale with nothing innovative for the brain or particularly passionate for the heart can win an audience because it has a spiritual component that reached into a weak spot and offered strength.

For fun: Add your own version of “it sold despite weak A because it had a strong B.” Show me what you can come up with!

Now…what is most important to you in a story? Deep characters that become real to you and linger like the scent of friends after a long visit? Scenes that make you feel as if you could take on anybody or that make make you weep for days? A message that helps you get through the week? A philosophical puzzle for your intellect? A mysterious element to ponder as you sit in your garden at dusk? Action or horror that gets the adrenaline pumping and makes you feel electrically alive? A tender ride to a more nostalgic time that makes you feel young again? Thick dialogue that you must dissect for hidden meanings and foreshadowing?

It seems logical that the more of those reader needs we can satisfy, the more successful the story will be and the wider our (possible) audience. (I may be wrong. It just makes sense to me.)

As Christians, we want to also give satisfaction to the spiritual side of readers. It’s a natural part of who we are. We live daily with a spiritual needs begging to be fed, with spiritual disciplines (well, maybe) that require our commitment, with spiritual hopes that get us through difficulties and give us motivation, with spiritual failings that humble us, with spiritual hungers that drive us to seek eternal bread and wine. Sometimes, we fall into spiritual ecstasy beyond anything physical. Sometimes, we feel spiritually dead.

It’s inevitable that this vivid and vital part of our lives will manifest in whatever we write—to whatever extent. What we love, what we need, what we desire, what we fear—these must spill onto a page.

Unless we are false writers and hacks. Unless we are liars and fakes. Unless we lean on conventions and stereotypes and refuse to be real in our poetry and prose. (I’m not knocking adopting a character voice, btw. I’m knocking an avoidance of genuineness.)

I will assume you and I are neither liars, nor fakers, nor deceivers, nor hacks; but rather that we seek to write from an honest and original position. And there is only one original position for the writer: writing from his or her own deepest self. Because everything else is learned, derived, copied, revised. The only original thing we bring to the table is who we are. We are each unique. Who we are is our gift. And who we are will lead to what we write, because what is important to us will become what’s important to our main characters. And what we are afraid of, proud of, ashamed of, desiring of, willing to die for, willing to kill for…all that will come to life in our characters.

And if we think God is important, it will show.

It’s essential that we bleed (or puke, as Mary DeMuth says) on those pages.

So, starting from a place of our own truths, how do we shape a speculative fiction story that opens the soul of the reader?

That’s a toughie. Clearly, this is a multi-part endeavor. And a collaborative one. I need your input. I need your help. Because we have to answer this question first:

Why do we read speculative fiction?

Why do YOU?

Of course, we like it. But as your elementary school experience with book reports taught you, answering, “I liked it,” doesn’t suffice. We all have to go deeper.

Why do YOU seek out, enjoy, write—like—speculative fiction? Why do YOU read it? What need does it meet? What purpose does it serve?

Why do you write it? Why is this the way to tell your stories?

I’m waiting. Tell me. Tell me so I can move on to the next part…

Next Week: My answer to the question, more questions, and some first steps in figuring out how to write soul-opening stories of SF for the broader audience.

A Shining Star In The Speculative Sky

Sometimes … a particular author or piece of writing is so good, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the work is secular or Christian. Lois McMaster Bujold is one of those authors. I basically quit reading secular SF/F years ago […]
| Oct 19, 2006 | No comments |

Sometimes … a particular author or piece of writing is so good, it doesn’t seem to matter whether the work is secular or Christian. Lois McMaster Bujold is one of those authors.

I basically quit reading secular SF/F years ago because I’m one of these overly sensitive, impressionable sorts who feels icky after spending too long immersed in writing infused with the usual New Age, occultic, or humanistic/feministic thinking, or with less-than-wonderful language or sexual content. (Not that I’ve been overly thrilled with many CBA offerings, either, but that’s another post for another day.) So when I joined Christian Fandomabout three years ago and started hearing how people loved this particular “newer” author, at first I ignored the conversations, but then was intrigued.

The first book of hers I tried was The Curse of Chalion,the first of a fantasy trilogy that yes, has a few elements that I found pagan and/or occultic, and a smattering of rough language (sexual content is implied rather than explicit) … but the writing is so smooth, the setting so vivid, and the characterization so wonderful, I was immediately hooked. The author is a self-professed gnostic, but she has an amazing way of capturing the essence of a relationship with God—both the doubts and devotion—and the longing for “something more” that so often drives us into His arms.

I then devoured the sequel, Paladin of Soulsand ventured into the SF Vorkosigan saga, which begins with Cordelia’s Honor (an omnibus containing the two novels Shards of Honor and Barrayar) and continues with the classic Warrior’s Apprentice, the first story where the infamous Miles appears as the protagonist.

I borrow heavily from Greg Slade’sreviews of Bujold’s books, and he beautifully explains their appeal:

‘… [this] makes for classic space opera … Except that Bujold rises above space opera, and brings the genre to a whole new level. For one thing, her science is a good deal more careful than that of most space opera writers, who (apparently) can’t be bothered to learn the difference between that which is currently technically infeasible, and that which is inherently impossible. For another thing, unlike much science fiction (not just space opera), which tends to be driven either by plot, or by (if you will) special effects, and places character in second place compared to evoking a sense of wonder, Bujold’s stories are driven by character. You won’t find her putting words into a character’s mouth which don’t belong there, simply because “somebody has to say that.” In fact, a great deal of the wit in her books (and they are very witty) comes from that strong sense of character.’

Miles in particular is not to be missed. Some very sensitive individuals may object to some content—there are some “squick” factors, and Greg could tell you how strenously I objected to the way technological advances in childbirth were presented—but overall, the characters and stories are so engaging, it’s easy to overlook all that.

When I grow up, I wanna write like Lois Bujold.

Nine Marks Of Widescreen Stories, Part 2

In late 2005, the Christian world, and especially its media, were in quite a bit of a frenzied excitement — a state almost unparalleled even by the excitement of The Passion of the Christ — because this time the children […]
| Oct 18, 2006 | No comments |

In late 2005, the Christian world, and especially its media, were in quite a bit of a frenzied excitement — a state almost unparalleled even by the excitement of The Passion of the Christ — because this time the children could go to the movie, too.

It was the Disney/Walden Media motion picture adaptation of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Christianity Today’s front-page article was titled C.S. Lewis: Superstar. Megachurch pastors in their glee assembled 10-part sermons about things like The Turkish Delight in Our Lives. Yes, the truths of sacrifice, redemption and good versus evil were on the big screen again: a Lord of the Rings redux, except more simple and direct. And with fantastic casting, sets and visual effects, it looked great.

Even better, the blockbuster film hid none of the Christ-honoring worldview elements embedded by the story’s author. Thousands more found wonder and enchantment in the world of Narnia — and fantasy fiction altogether, even that which honored the Biblical worldview, received another boost.

But then there were those Christians who became far too enthusiastic.

2. Staying off ‘the bench of bishops’

In my last installment I wrote of the need for Biblical truths, especially those of Law and Grace, to be formed naturally into Widescreen Fiction. Now we come to the other extreme, as practiced by many Christian writers, evangelists and other Gospel marketers: the propaganda spray-painters.

In late 2005, they were everywhere. Punch Narnia into and glance over the results. Check out other websites whose well-meaning missionaries felt sure this was a perfect chance to convey the Hidden Meanings of LWW to audiences who surely wouldn’t get them otherwise. Other organizations happily provided helpful tips to Christians who wanted an easier way to “target” the unsaved — one such online missions manual even suggested writing out the story’s “analogies” and Official Discussion Questions on 3 by 5 cards and reading them off to friends after seeing the movie.

This was spray paint: slathering propaganda and faith symbols onto the wooden surface of a wondrous Wardrobe, whose exquisitely carven images were already enough to reflect God’s glory.

But for Christians unused to fiction (the same types who managed to think Da Vinci Code was of course heretical but “a great page-turner!”), this seems exactly the way to present truth in a story: start with the Message — often about the Gospel, either directly or by way of “analogy” so that perhaps people will hear it differently this time around — and go immediately to work wrapping the story around it.

C.S. Lewis himself spoke of this. And his words make it clear that not only was the same mindset popular in his era, but that in no way would he have bought into that methodology himself:

Some people seem to think that I began by asking myself how I could say something about Christianity to children; then fixed on the fairy tale as an instrument; then collected information about child-psychology and decided what age group I’d write for; then drew up a list of basic Christian truths and hammered out ‘allegories’ to embody them. This is all pure moonshine. I couldn’t write in that way at all. Everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn’t even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord.

C.S. Lewis, “Of This and Other Worlds”

Many Christians are so used to the very idea Lewis easily dismissed: using whatever dramatic “instruments” possible but cheapening the music, with the primary goal of spreading a Message.

I believe this methodology is founded in its practioners’ theological worldview. They’ve bought into the idea that pretty much everything they create must contain the language of Churchese. After all, if we don’t save the lost, some claim, we’ll be answering to God later for what happens; one preacher I heard recently even declared that otherwise “their blood will be on our hands”!

This, too, is all pure moonshine. God doesn’t have an evangelism-shaped hole that only we can fill; He’ll redeem whom He will and we should feel awed and inspired that He even just lets us have a hand in helping Him out. The book of Acts especially makes this clear: people’s willingness to hear is up to the Spirit. We’re still divine marketers on a Great Commission, of course — but ultimately it’s His job.

Aside from Biblical reasoning, though, we can consider our own reading or film-viewing preferences. For example, would we seek out, read and enjoy a blatantly Buddhist novel whose sole purpose, made clear in the story, was to advocate karma and such? What about the religion of Secular Humanism — we’re more acclimated to it in our culture, but how often would we enjoy overtly pro-Humanist and anti-Christian literature whose authors’ main purpose is to subvert Biblical faith?

The unfortunate truth is that many creative Humanists have beaten Christians here: a lot of their stories are cooler than ours. Star Trek alone proves this. At times, the series’ messages are overtly Humanistic, but often the episodes just vaguely assume a progressive, evolutionary worldview down in Engineering somewhere and then hurtle at Warp Factor Six into fascinating worlds of story, characters, intrigue and interstellar adventure.

What’s the result? We do become used to that worldview, for better or worse. They didn’t even need to quote The Humanist Manifesto III. The “truths” of Humanism can be subtle and appealing — and easily rejected, because the stories are so good. The same can happen with Christian fiction readers.

Similarly, authors don’t need to include specific Scripture verses or direct fantasy-world equivalents of Bible stories to convey Biblical truth. Instead, our stories can naturally point to the deeper truth found in Scripture, while authors trust that because of who they are, the stories’ Biblical themes will develop on their own. Thus the concepts just might trickle down into the non-Christians’ subconscious — all the better for the Spirit to employ later in His mental invasion of fuller Truth, if He so chooses.

Lewis and Tolkien had this right, though the latter author’s approach was much more subtle: focus on the writing profession first, and don’t even directly bother about the Message. We need more of those types of Christians, Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, and specifically he mentioned the need for Christian novelists who don’t propagandize:

The application of Christian principles, say, to trade unionism or education, must come from Christian trade unionists and Christian schoolmasters: just as Christian literature comes from Christian novelists and dramatists — not from the bench of bishops getting together and trying to write plays and novels in their spare time.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Meanwhile, consider Christ Himself, with His own stories. To be sure, He started with Message first, imbuing the tales with analogies all intended to make His point. But He rarely made the hidden meanings clear, often only to His disciples, and even then they had to beg a lot for His explanations.

‘Tis the same with Widescreen Fiction readers. Let’s make them beg for more! As Christ-followers, we’re purveyors of “sting operations” — bait readers and they’ll want to know more about the fantastic story’s worldview. They’ll feel cool about it because they’ll be somewhat tricked into believing they’ve actually Found Something Subtle on their own. Then we can sit back and laugh in satirical, sinister fashion, knowing we have them. Or, more appropriately, the Spirit might just have them.

Of course, the story must capture readers’ imaginations first. It must naturally rival the best the “secular world” has to offer, in any genre. And that is the very topic of this series’ next episode. …

SFF: Genre Of Genres

One of the things I love about SFF is the fact that you aren’t bound into a strict set of genre conventions, but that you can meld and mesh genres together for a nearly limitless ability to create unique and […]
| Oct 17, 2006 | No comments |

One of the things I love about SFF is the fact that you aren’t bound into a strict set of genre conventions, but that you can meld and mesh genres together for a nearly limitless ability to create unique and interesting stories.

Western, mystery, romance, suspense, thriller, detective, literary, historical, chick lit, and more.  None of these are beyond the scope of SFF. A well-balanced mingling of any of these can create an experience of wonder and joy. Though an ill-balanced mix will come off as nothing but a contrived mix of shallow dreck.

This is likely something that contributes to the difficulty of separating and classifying SFF sub-genres.  How would you classify a sweet prairie romance set in a new colony on the plains of Benedix IV? Or perhaps the story of an elite S.W.A.T. style team set in a magical kingdom? Or a re-telling of the Napoleanic wars that asks “What if there were dragon riders used during the war”? A retelling of the story of Noah that abandons the assumption that mankind wasn’t advanced technologically pre-flood, mixing in elements of fantasy and sci-fi?  (Three of those are real books).

Then there’s stories like Blade Runner or Harry Turtledove’s World War series.

SFF is so much more than Tolkien and Lucas and Rodenberry, even if those tend to be the most well known and emulated examples of the modern age.

So if YOU could mix in a genre for the ultimate SFF story, what would it be? And what would the perfect mix for you be?

SFF—The Genre For The Ages

SFF is the genre for all Ages and for all ages. It is timeless, and it reaches across generational boundaries. One way the latter occurs is through the various types apparent within the general classification. In reality as the name […]
| Oct 16, 2006 | No comments |

SFF is the genre for all Ages and for all ages. It is timeless, and it reaches across generational boundaries.

One way the latter occurs is through the various types apparent within the general classification. In reality as the name Science Fiction and Fantasy implies, the genre is a combination of two distinct, and in some ways opposite, areas. Science Fiction extrapolates on some aspect of real life and stretches to the limits of “what if.” What if computers could think for themselves, what if mankind could travel to other planets in moments, what if there is intelligent life that visits earth, what if dinosaurs still existed—these kinds of questions drive SF.

I am a fantasy writer, so I know only the major divisions of SF and even less of the distinctives. One SF author identified two overarching categories: space opera and hard core science, with space opera emphasizing character development and hard core emphasizing the science. I’ll rely on other SF writers to give any further explanation of the varieties within that portion of the genre.

I’ll primarily highlight various types of fantasy, though of course this list is not exhaustive. Much of my thoughts come from The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature, edited by Philip Martin (published by The Writer Books, 2002).

Fantasy, opposed to SF, is not plausible. No matter how long a person searches, he will never find the Shire or the Misty Mountains or Rivendell. He can try on any number of gold rings and never disappear, seek out a dragon’s lair and never find it, hunt for the home of elves and never discover it. To truly appreciate fantasy, a reader must suspend assumptions of “the way the world works.” The substance for a fantasy is the imagination built upon a writer’s beliefs.

But why look at the types of fantasy? What can we gain? From Philip Martin:

Despite the variety, fantasy takes shape in clusters of style. There are categories in fantasy—although everyone might not agree on exactly what to call them, or where one stops and another begins. To help fathom the secrets of successful books, we can begin by looking at fantasy as a set of five main styles—five golden rings of tradition. These rings are often interlinked. They are also elastic and flexible. They can be stretched to far limits, or they can be folded back on themselves, nested in any combination. It is always risky to categorize creativity. Yet to the craftsperson, knowledge of traditional form is important. A quilter works inside a square frame, but has a nearly infinite choice of combinations of patters, colors, and textures. In the same way, a writer never needs to feel restrained by fantasy’s heritage—just informed by its time-tested success.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be taking a look at some of the categories that give fantasy its rich variety and make it truly the genre for the ages.

Supporting The Molehills That Surround The Mountain: One Way To Advance CSF This Year

This will be a shameless plug, but it’s an altruistic one. It may seem as if I’m plugging MYSELF, but I’m not. Pay attention. I’m not the subject, just a way to get at what the subject is. So, don’t […]
| Oct 12, 2006 | No comments |

This will be a shameless plug, but it’s an altruistic one. It may seem as if I’m plugging MYSELF, but I’m not. Pay attention. I’m not the subject, just a way to get at what the subject is.

So, don’t click off. Keep your eyes right here, with patience, even if the subject doesn’t seem to be up your alley . I may surprise you:

The Sword Review Fiction Contest is a fundraiser that is now open for entries. You may have seen the announcement around the CSF communities. If not, I’m telling you now, and I’m highlighting the announcement with easy-to-recall, key terms: Contest. Sword Review. Fundraiser. Open.

If CBA publishers are the mountain we seek to move and climb (see last week’s post), then the Christian SF publications that squeak by on middling or tiny or non-existent budgets are the molehills that lie scattered at its base, and that we ignore to our shame.

Do you ache to hone your skills, you who aspire to multi-book contracts? Then look to what these molehills have to offer, this particular molehill that serves as my soapbox today.

The Sword Review was delightful to me last year. I admit that. They chose my humble offering of Christian SF (short story form) as their contest winner. It’s the horrendously titled—even I, the mother, cannot deny that I so poorly named the child— “Voices From The Void.” I should have just gone with the graceful simplicity of “Voices” or, as Chris of Fair Writing blog suggested, “Hush.” This is what comes of scrambling for a title at the last minute. That’s all my brain spit out as the deadline loomed. It sucks, yes. Forgive me.

But my story’s pretty good. It’s not a conceited-beyond-belief me coming to that conclusion. That’s been the consensus of the judges, the reviewers, and the email from readers. And, trust me, I remind myself of their compliments every time I wince at that awful, awful title.

Here’s the opener that TSR uses as a teaser, a taste:

“Time’s a prancing ninny, the practical joker of the universe,” says the marriage merchant, the Matcher, to none of us in particular. He hasn’t shut up once since we left Earth bound for Phlida. “Space, on the other hand, has no sense of humor whatsoever. It just broods out there like a lonely, tongue-tied bachelor. Well, see for yourself.”

We take the cue, all six of us who are stuck for the duration in the saferoom with the loquacious Matcher and his ceaseless attempts to spark conversation. We all look toward the single viewport overhead that serves up a slice of darkness pierced by pinpoints of light. The starview is meant to keep claustrophobia at bay during the journey. The conversation is meant to keep us sane.

Really, what choice do we have but to look up? What else can any of us do, bound as we are by our seats, bound together by the stabilizers that keep us in a single timestream, bound by the yearnings that have driven us from the home planet? Tell us to look, we look. Tell us to sleep, we sleep. Tell us to press that spot in our earlobes to quell the space sickness, and we press. Tell us to sip nutrients, we sip. Tell us to forget who we are and we just may forget, if we knew to begin with.

But don’t make me talk, Matcher.

I’m a novice to space travel, but I have read and heard the stories of what can happen once the gravity of homeworld ceases to bind you. Everything loosens. Things fly free. Secrets escape. And the only ones unaffected, so I’ve read, are the Loners, those genetically-gifted few who live in the belly of spaceships, navigating, maintaining, recording. They fly without risk, immune to the strange effects of these outer wilds—yes, utterly free of any susceptibility to space madness—and they are themselves bound to the normal timeflow by the complex mechanism implanted in their bodies. The operation, they say, is irrevocable.

I find it easy to believe such tales of space and spacemen.

You can read the rest of, yes, let me rechristen it, “Voices,” here:

Feel free to comment on it, too.

So, what’s the point of all that shameless self-promotion. It’s for you. It’s a mere sample of a story that won last year, and I want you to write one that’s ten times, twenty times, fifty times BETTER. I want YOU to win the contest THIS year. I want all of you to sit down and write a kicking SF story—fantasy, science fiction, your choice—and I want you to make it shine, and I want you to make it sing, and I want you to have good craft (conflict, characterization, escalation, resolution). Hear me? I want you to work on the rhythm of your prose. I want you to differentiate dialogue. I want you to address an idea, a theme, a moral even. (Moral in the old-fashioned sense, not as in moralizing, although, hey, if you can do it well, go for it.)

Why? Why am I appealing to you?

Because TSR is a place that nurtures the CSF community. It is a venue for artists, poets, short story writers, essayists. It has a forum where we can hang out and encourage one another. It consistently strives to offer good stuff that is compatible with a Christian worldview, even when it’s not overt. Even when it is, as Becky recommends, subtle.

You should check out the poetry, btw. They’ve had some really good stuff. (Ahem. I won their poetry contest this year. Feel free to read and comment on “Into The Heart.”)

Here’s the nice thing: This contest adds coins to their coffer. Their coffer needs coins. You see where I’m going here?

But it’s not just about TSR. No, let’s come back to…you. You may need this. You maybe have been laboring over some long, long saga of a work, without official recognition, without publication. This is a chance to write something shorter, more immediate, a small jewel, and maybe get what your laboring writer’s heart needs: commendation and an audience. And a bit of cash for the next Lois McMaster Bujold or John C. Wright or Gene Wolfe or Connie Willis or Karen Hancock or Kathryn Mackel or Randy Ingermanson offering.

Winning the TSR contest is what gave me the nerve to be more overt in promoting the genre, gave me the impetus to enter the Genesis. (Which , for those who didn’t hear, I won in the SF category. Um, no, no my head is not swelling to a disgusting size. I do keep a sense of proportion. No matter how cheering, it’s just a contest in the end. But yeah, my writer’s heart feels good for it.)

Now, you don’t have to win…to win. If you complete a story. If you work at it to the best of your ability and push some more so that you find a higher zone in your own craft, then you’ve done a fine thing that you can always be proud of. And if you enter this contest, you are saying, “I support CSF. With my talent and time and money.”

I’m in the midst of judging a poetry contest over at Dragons, Knights & Angels. We held that to encourage more and better poetry submissions to that webzine. We believe it matters, poetry, just as we believe fiction matters. And art. And faith. And hope. TSR is a sister (or brother) webzine to DKA. We’re in the same boat with Ray Gun Revival. Dependent on volunteers and donations. Dependent on folks willing to share their creations for extremely modest reward. We work, believing and hoping.

Hope. That’s the fiction contest’s theme this year.

Hope. That was the theme of the poetry contest this year, too. These are the last two stanzas of my first place poem, “Into The Heart”:

With rations running low, we feed on dreams of waking
to a shuttle engine’s thrumming as it lands. But Sara,
sleepless, digs and hums a broken rhythm any medic like
me recognizes: the stumbling pulse heading toward death.

I squat beside her as she dives through earth, her red
hands splashing soil on me like blood. I ask if I might
help her find her heart. She smiles a yes and shows me
how to tear the clods out of our way. We’re almost there.

This blog, like others, are tearing clods out of the way, with hope. We refuse to be the stumbling, dying pulse. We choose to be rising toward, not just survival, but thriving life. That mountain beckons. I want to be able to say, and soon, “We’re almost there.”

Hope is the bread that sustains us writers, because we write alone and, sometimes, for many years without any remuneration. Hope. What dreams are you feeding on? Do you feed the dreams of others?

We’re trying to do that here. TSR is trying to do it there. Do it with us. Raise hope. Feed dreams.

I hope you take my words to heart. I hope you support TSR and keep adding items to their nurturing pantry, keep their rations from running low. I hope you enter the contest with the best and most beautiful 3,000 or 5,000 words you have to offer.

And I hope one of you dear, dear, wonderful persons, you who have encouraged me over the past year…you…or you…or YOU…I hope you, yes, you, win.

See. I told you this wasn’t about me.

Dry Bones

So last Monday I took my daughter to performing arts practice where they’re working on their dance/enactment called “Arise” based on the dry bones in Ezekiel 37: 1-14. The performance presents the spiritual aspect of it all. There are demons […]
| Oct 12, 2006 | No comments |

So last Monday I took my daughter to performing arts practice where they’re working on their dance/enactment called “Arise” based on the dry bones in Ezekiel 37: 1-14. The performance presents the spiritual aspect of it all. There are demons and angels, kids lay on the floor and begin to lift up to the music and the call to arise. It gives me chills.

One of them is an older teenager, maybe nineteen, and he blows the shofar then shouts, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the Lord!

When the group broke up to practice a specific portion, the older teenager—we’ll call him Ted—came over to me, which is unusual. I’m normally an in –the- background kind of person. I guess I stood out in the group because I had my iBook propped open on my lap. I rarely take my computer anywhere but decided to give it a try. I did get something accomplished. Still, I was a bit embarrassed to be flashing my cute white box. People were fawning over it.

Ted asked what I was doing and I explained I was working on an interview with Stephen Lawhead. I asked if he knew him. To my surprise he perked up at the name. Our conversation turned to science fiction. Ted is an avid reader of science fiction. In fact, so much so, that he claims he can’t find anything else good to read. His words: “it’s hard to find anything good out there. I’ve read it all and there’s just not any more left.”

It’s not often that I come across someone who loves to read and especially science fiction. For once, I was able to chat away with someone who had many of the same interests. I explained to him that I write Christian SFF and went on to discuss what we’re doing here at Spec Faith and through the Christian SFF blog tour. Ted, though an avid reader of science fiction, has never heard of Christian SFF. Big surprise, huh?

Though Ted found this intriguing, he was still very curious as to why I felt that as a Christian, I had something more or special to offer to the genre. We should be writing for the sake of the story rather than trying to push an agenda, he said.

What left me stunned was when he squinted and looked away in thought, then shook his head and said, “You don’t have to be a Christian to write fantasy.” He gave Susan Cooper as his example. She’s an atheist, but her stories reveal the ultimate and intrinsic battle between good and evil, light and darkness. The same words I heard from Mr. editor/agent at the conference.

I have to admit, I’m still considering all of this. While what he says makes sense, it is still hard to believe that we, the bearers of the greatest truth, can make no difference in writing SFF. Aren’t we to make a difference in everything we do? Isn’t there some magic, inspiration, or annointing that will shine through our work unlike works written by atheists or unbelievers? Can God choose to shine through the work of an unbeliever? Sure he can. But he wants to shine through His children.

Take author Francine Rivers for instance. She originally wrote for the secular romance market but crossed over to the CBA where she has written such novels as Redeeming Love and Mark of the Lion. I’m sure she will tell us that there is an infinite difference between her novels before God and after God. Her work is meaningful, life changing.

I believe Becky Miller stated on one of her posts at Christian Worldview that we should not leave this genre to those who don’t know the truth. I wholeheartedly concur. Some have said that it’s only a matter of time before the Christian market will open up to more SFF. Others have said the doors are about to blow wide open. Perhaps we are simply dry bones and God is calling us to arise to His work of writing great science fiction and fantasy, works that will glorify Him, in it’s due time.


Nine Marks Of Widescreen Stories: Part 1

For a few months now I’ve been keeping up with Speculative Faith, quite overjoyed at the number of sci-fi and fantasy authors who’ve found a cyber-gathering place like this. Now it’s my privilege to start contributing headliner installments of my […]
| Oct 11, 2006 | No comments |

For a few months now I’ve been keeping up with Speculative Faith, quite overjoyed at the number of sci-fi and fantasy authors who’ve found a cyber-gathering place like this.

Now it’s my privilege to start contributing headliner installments of my own. Many of you I’ve met at ACFW 2006 in Dallas; many of you I’ve yet to meet personally or even online. But already I can discern “kindred spirits” floating about this fantastic realm. And now I can enter this world myself. …

I’ve been writing for a while about this “genre” called Widescreen Fiction, a term that first originated in my Aug. 23, 2006 column Re-editing Christian Fiction for Widescreen Viewers.

Since then, that theme has continued in a further series — I’ve been trying to explain more about the Christian market’s stigmatizing of these story forms, where the stigma came from, what some writers are doing to overcome it, and what methods may work to broaden readers’ scope of preferences beyond the limited genres currently available in Christian fiction.

Widescreen fiction: a speculative story with realistic characters, epic elements and engaging plot that includes strong, Christ-honoring themes of good versus evil and growth in faith.

That’s the central definition, but perhaps now is a great time to assemble a longer list of what Widescreen Fiction entails. With apologies to Nine Marks Ministries (which presents its Nine Marks of a Healthy Church), here begins summaries of the Nine Marks of Widescreen Stories.

1. Forming a foundational, infusing Biblical worldview

This is absolutely essential to the truly Christ-honoring work of widescreen fiction. Often some authors, in the hopes of crossover success, basic non-offensiveness, or sometimes unintentional style, have left out elements that distinguish their novels as those truly inspired by a love for Christ’s truths and a Christian worldview, and we want to avoid that.

Here things become slightly difficult to explain, for widescreen fiction (and any fiction) of course includes fictitious worlds, not only reality-based but fantastic and foreign. In these stories, one can’t always include the specific God, Christ, holy Bible, conversions to the faith and such.

Yet those concepts can either be strongly hinted toward, or told in the form of allegory or analogy.

However, the latter option seems to me overused, as many novels and stories have already mimicked the style of allegorical elements in The Chronicles of Narnia, or else included direct, sometimes shallow analogies to God and salvation.

J.R.R. Tolkien, to be sure, was among the best authors who wrote from a Christian worldview but only hinted toward it; he incidentally split the characteristics of Christ between Gandalf, Aragorn and Frodo, and generalized the struggle between good and evil in the conflict to destroy the One Ring and overt the Dark Lord’s domination. One can even find Christian worldviews evident in the stories of the superhero films Spider-Man, Batman Begins and Superman Returns.

Certainly the specific spiritual themes will vary between novels, as the author discovers them naturally while focusing on the story.

But some elements, I believe, are crucial to include in any widescreen-format, speculative story, primarily the core truths of the Gospel: Law and Grace.

Law — that is, objective moral standards — are easy to include in the story, but fortunately for all of us, the message of Christ doesn’t end with the Law (otherwise, we would all be dead).

Thus, Grace and redemption are just as essential to include, and will also likely imbed themselves in the characters and storyline while the Christ-following writer isn’t even trying to do that.

However, many Christian books I’ve read don’t go much beyond the common themes of God Loves You Even in Times of Trouble and Loneliness, or Take That Leap of Faith: themes that are often geared toward the unsaved, focusing on the main character’s Journey to Conversion.

This seems strange, not only because, as with analogies, those themes are somewhat overdone, but because most Christian readers already know about those messages anyway. Certainly we shouldn’t do away with those truths, but why not attempt going beyond them? As authors mature in their craft, so they can grow in their story complexities and imbue deeper themes. Meanwhile, their readers just might grow right along with them.

I’ll argue in part 4 that either hints, or even overt inclusions, of Biblical elements such as church attendance, evangelism and dealing with false Christians can also be included in widescreen fiction; and part 7 deals exclusively with the need for the Church’s representation in Christian stories.

Yet the next installment, part 2, concerns the opposite extreme to weakening a novel’s Christian worldview: the tactic of strengthening the Christian messages too much. Dozens of novels fall into this trap (with or without “authorship” attributed to some big-name preacher); they make it clear that their writers’ intent is to propagandize readers rather than tell them a story.

And what results are “stories,” such as they are, revolving around myopic messages and devoid of thematic layers. They will likely put off non-Christian readers; and either bore, or fail to engage fully, readers who are already Christians.

So keep your gazed fixed on this screen — and it’s all in widescreen format, of course. …

It’s great to be joining you.

Leggo My Ego and Inspiration

I had planned to write on the effect ego can play in the writer’s life today, but it just kept feeling a bit petty and cynical.  Suffice it to say that we all need to constantly keep our egos in […]
| Oct 10, 2006 | No comments |

I had planned to write on the effect ego can play in the writer’s life today, but it just kept feeling a bit petty and cynical.  Suffice it to say that we all need to constantly keep our egos in check, to keep them from growing over-inflated and believing that the ONLY reason we aren’t published is the market bias. But also to keep the ego from being under-inflated and believing that we are completely worthless and have no hope of ever seeing our writing make a difference.  Both are likely untrue, but hold enough kernels of truth to make them believable.

Even writing that is only read by you and God can make an impact upon the world, as that writing will have changed you, and you interact with the world. And maybe market bias is having some impact on your being published, but you have to take a close hard look at your writing craft as well and ask “Is this my absolute best?”

Anyway enough on that. Let’s talk about things that have inspired you, either as a reader, viewer or writer.

What are some things that have inspired you? Have filled you with the urge to write, or left you with a sense of refreshment and a feeling that you were ready to go out and conquer the world?  Or perhaps inspired you to make some kind of change in your life?

One thing that inspired me to believe I really could write CSFF is R.A. Salvatore’s The Cleric Quintet. This is the story of a young cleric named Cadderly who experiences a journey of faith while battling evil that is infesting his monastery. Over the course of the five short novels we follow Cadderly as he transitions from a man troubled by doubts to a true devoted follower, willing to sacrifice all for his god.

The thought that a story set within a Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms world could show such a journey of faith, woven smoothly in with the action and plot, showed me what was possible within my own writing. The Cleric Quintet isn’t perfect writing, but it was enough to light the spark within me and get me moving on my dream.

So how about you?  What inspirations can you share with us today?