Why I Read Fantasy

This is the third day of the CSFF blog tour highlighting the Christian webzine Dragons Knights and Angels, which features Christian short fiction and poetry in the speculative fiction genre. If you’ve not had a chance to investigate it, I […]
| Nov 1, 2006 | No comments |

This is the third day of the CSFF blog tour highlighting the Christian webzine Dragons Knights and Angels, which features Christian short fiction and poetry in the speculative fiction genre. If you’ve not had a chance to investigate it, I encourage you to do so. I plan to do just that, myself — as soon as I have turned in the final draft of my work in progress, Return of the Guardian King, last book in my Guardian King series, due… um… yesterday. Since things are not going as I had hoped or anticipated, neither with the events in my life nor with the events in Abramm’s… my editor has given me an extension. So now it’s due next week.

Unfortunately, my post for the month here at Speculative Faith is due today. Alas, what should I write?  I have a number of partial ideas, but no extra time or brain cells to develop them now, so I’ve decided to post a piece I wrote up some time ago that I include when I mail out bookmarks and also sometimes provide to bookstores and libraries, called “Why I Read Fantasy.” (Some of you will have read a slightly longer version of it on my website, and on my blog) It echoes some of the sentiments other posters on this blog have expressed when asked the question why they read and write speculative fiction, and I think adds a few additional elements. I offer it now because I continue to be perplexed by people who claim to dislike the genre, having never read it. What better time for a reminder than during a blog tour? Several Christians — and even a bookstore owner — to whom I have given this, responded in surprise, saying they never would have realized there could be such parallels to the Christian life in fantasy had it not been pointed out. I wonder how many others are like that.

Why I Read Fantasy

The Lord of the Rings, The Song of Albion, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, The Wheel of Time, The Farseer Trilogy, Watership Down, The Prydain Chronicles, The Sword of Shannara,  The Belgariad, The Chronicles of Narnia… All are well-known, well-loved fantasy series, many of them my personal favorites. Why do I love to read Fantasy? Because, of all the genres, I think fantasy, by its very nature, most leans toward illustrating important spiritual truths. Even secular fantasies do so—in rather great numbers—despite the fact it is sometimes obvious their writers had little intention of doing so

The typical fantasy is epic, involving great battles for freedom, even for the survival of the world—concerns that overreach the mundane and petty details of day to day life. These battles almost always involve the supernatural forces of evil at war with the supernatural forces of good, usually in a visibly manifest conflict that parallels the invisible supernatural war believers in the Lord Jesus Christ are involved in on earth. Knowing about this battle and our place in it gives our lives meaning and purpose. Even if we must engage in mundane activities, we can know that they have great significance in the unseen war.  Of all the genres, fantasy is the only one that acknowledges the existence of this battle, and for that reason I would claim it is in some ways more representative of reality than more “realistic” stories which, if anything, tend to convey the message that it doesn’t exist.

As there are always certain characters who possess the ability to discern the presence/approach of evil forces in a fantasy story—and defend against them—so Christians, through the filling of the Holy Spirit and the serious, daily study of the Word of God, acquire the ability to discern and defend against the supernatural forces of evil in our own world. Evil which is far more pervasive and subtle than people generally think. The devil, after all, “has deceived the whole world,” is the Prince of the powers of the air, and walks about like a roaring lion seeking someone to devour. He is a master counterfeiter, appearing as an angel of light, sending out counterfeit ministers who teach people how to be righteous (!) and in so
doing keeps most people completely ignorant of his schemes. And he delights in using the most mundane details of a believer’s life to bring him down.  And just as in many fantasy stories, he will succeed if the believer doesn’t recognize what’s going on and work to fight against it.

The frequent presence of kings and other royalty in fantasy stories is another aspect of fantasy that I enjoy. This set-up provides an obvious metaphor for our relationship with the Lord, and illustrates not only the humility and devotion required of those who serve the king, but also the responsibilities and self-sacrifice required of the king himself. Contrasting characters show the pitfalls of refusing to submit to the rightful authority, and the destructive power of having authority and abusing it. The use of characters who have royal blood also reminds us of our own status as kings and lords in the royal family of God.

Fantasy themes typically include loyalty, courage, self-sacrifice, and the need to be ever vigilant in fighting against the forces of evil. Because fantasy worlds tend to be modeled on our own historical past and their storylines focused on issues higher than any one person’s self-absorbed goals, the characters and societies, at least the good ones, tend to have more respect for virtue and honor, and so cultivate a higher standard of morality.

Best of all, fantasy novels are almost always about great heroes, which I see as illustrative of our Lord, the greatest hero of all.  Courage, confidence, humility, self-sacrifice, virtue, perseverance, love—the qualities of a hero reflect our Lord’s character. They are also the qualities to which we ourselves should all aspire since we have been designed by God to be heroes just like Him in the unseen battle in which we fight. Especially significant to me is the fact that being a hero always exacts a price.

Often the hero is presented in the context of a journey which echoes that of our Savior’s. He typically begins the story as a menial of unknown parentage (often turning out to be a king’s son) who suddenly comes to realize not only that there is a great battle raging—or is about to break out—in his world, but that he has a calling upon his life to fight in it. He also discovers in himself unusual abilities that will be required to win it. After enduring many trials and difficulties (the cross before the crown) the hero and his followers  succeed in defeating the evil and delivering the realm. Justice prevails and the rule of good triumphs, as will eventually occur in our own world.

All of those principles I see as having important bearing on my own life, and I love to see them play out in the different ways authors choose to develop them. I love heroes, love following them through their journeys. They always make me think of my Lord, and often give me new ways to relate to Him. Finally, I love using the imagination God has given me to create in my own mind the fabulous and fascinating realms that others have devised for their stories.  Not only is it just plain fun, it also provides ways of looking at spiritual truths from angles I might not have considered before.

With echoes of the Savior’s life and character, stories that remind me of who I am and why I am here, and themes that provoke thoughts of God’s sovereignty, justice and love—why would I not love to read Fantasy? Add in the elements of suspense, mystery, action and romance that characterize many fantasies, and how could I not recommend the genre to one and all?

The Original Problem

It has been said that there are only thirty-six basic plots in existence, that there is nothing new under the son, that everything has been done before. This can cause issues for both readers and writers who are always looking […]
| Oct 31, 2006 | No comments |

It has been said that there are only thirty-six basic plots in existence, that there is nothing new under the son, that everything has been done before. This can cause issues for both readers and writers who are always looking for the next great, original story. One that takes them places they’ve never been before (or at least takes the familiar and skews it in a different way).

I think the main key of originality is to stop worrying so much about being completely original. For an example of the same premise being written originally by many different authors check out What the Wind Picked Up. It isn’t speculative fiction, but it does prove a point. YOU are a key factor in making any writing done original, the fact is no-one can write a story the same way that you have.

But there is also another way to ensure being original.

Don’t just go with the first idea that pops into your head when something is coming up.  Take that idea and look at it carefully, then see how you can twist the conventional thoughts on those into something believable yet uncommon.

Do this with your characters, your plot points, your ultimate goals. Even if you are writing a basic heroes journey tale with a young, farming lad pulled into a quest to wield an ancient artifact and save the world. Finding little twists to make on the characters and trusting your own instinct will provide a work that is unique.

And don’t be afraid to read widely in the genres, you won’t suddenly pick up all of the unoriginal ideas and have them bleed into your writing, but you’ll come to recognize the conventions that are becoming cliché’ and maybe think of interesting ways to twist them.

There will always be parallels and similarities within the works of those raised in the same culture with the same artistic influences and grand social experiences.  But it is the details that make one work just a mimic of an older tale, and one that forges new territory.

CSFF Blog Tour—DKA Stories and Fantasy Classifications

Our October CSFF Blog Tour features something new—the science fiction and fantasy e-zine, Dragons, Knights, and Angels (DKA). Such a publication offers stories and poems that can satisfy the speculative desires of the busy reader who does not have time […]
| Oct 30, 2006 | No comments |

Our October CSFF Blog Tour features something new—the science fiction and fantasy e-zine, Dragons, Knights, and Angels (DKA). Such a publication offers stories and poems that can satisfy the speculative desires of the busy reader who does not have time for a full-length novel.

I thought it might be interesting to look at some of these stories in light of our discussion of types of fantasy. First, I need to complete the descriptions. I am using the categories established by Philip Martin, editor of The Writer’s Guide to Fantasy Literature. Last Monday we looked at High Fantasy, Adventure Fantasy, and Fairy Tales. There are two more.

Magic Realism. I think of this as Twilight Zone-type fantasy. Martin’s description: “Magic realism produces stories in which magical things happen, often unexpectedly, in the midst of very realistic, everyday settings and events … In these stories magic is more likely to act as an independent character than as a tool used by other characters.”

He points out the varied nature of this type of fantasy. Some stories infuse the ordinary with the fantastic, often crossing over into modern mainstream fiction, though they clearly depend on the central tropes of fantasy: good versus evil and magic. Some magic realism reveals the magical as good. In other stories, it is what causes the character’s downfall as he follows his base desires. Often the distinction between dreams and reality is murky at best.

Martin again:

In magic realism, abstract thoughts and concepts become real. Something intangible is given sudden visible form … One writer suggested that Tolkien fantasy is inherently Protestant, with its reliance on the profound meaning of each individual’s actions. Magic realism on the other hand is more Catholic, with its belief in magical transformation from outside, mysterious powers. In any case, magic realism is fantasy, but one in which the key rules are often invisible to the humans involved.

Dark Fantasy. Again, within this classification there are numerous sub-categories: horror, gothic, dark satire, urban, vampire, and ghost stories.

Martin makes an interesting statement about horror, that I wonder whether it applies to all the dark fantasy:

It’s roots lie in ancient tales wherein the matter of curses is closely linked t religion and taboos. Doing something wrong is bound to lead to awful consequences. These stories are morality plays: often the plot hinges on unraveling the mystery of just what was done wrong—and on discovering the manner in which this can be corrected or reversed. Horror explores the consequences of misguided action, just as the Old Testament of the Bible explores the sometimes horrific consequences of what happens to those who transgress the law.

Does any other genre offer such a varied tapestry? No two fantasy stories have to look alike, and I suggest that fewer and fewer Christian fantasies resemble the large successes of the past.

Take a look at the stories in the most recent issue of DKA, for example. In fact, it might be sort of fun to read these stories in light of Philip Martin’s classifications to see where you might place them.

If you’re game, why not start with “Cold Dragons,” by TW Williams. Read it, then come back here and leave a comment. I’ll enter your name in Mirtika Schultz ’s contest, with the winner receiving a free five-page critique from DKA’s poetry editor.

Which reminds me. Be sure to check out the other blogs participating in this month’s tour:

  • Jim Black
  • Jackie Castle
  • Valerie Comer
  • Frank Creed
  • Kameron M. Franklin
  • Beth Goddard
  • Todd Michael Greene
  • Leathel Grody
  • Karen Hancock
  • Elliot Hanowski
  • Katie Hart
  • Sherrie Hibbs
  • Joleen Howell
  • Jason Joyner
  • Karen and at Karen’s myspace
  • Oliver King
  • Tina Kulesa
  • Lost Genre Guild
  • Kevin Lucia
  • Rachel Marks
  • Shannon McNear
  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
  • Caleb Newell
  • John Otte
  • Cheryl Russel
  • Mirtika Schultz
  • Stuart Stockton
  • Steve Trower
  • How To Bring Myths and Fairy Tales Back From The Dead And Into The Light: Part One

    If you’re scratching your head wondering, “Um, where’s part two of that soul-opening spec-fic thing she was gonna do?”—yes, yes, sorry. I was supposed to continue with that today. However, I’ve not written something that satisfies me enough to post […]
    | Oct 27, 2006 | No comments |

    If you’re scratching your head wondering, “Um, where’s part two of that soul-opening spec-fic thing she was gonna do?”—yes, yes, sorry. I was supposed to continue with that today. However, I’ve not written something that satisfies me enough to post with delight and confidence, so I have to defer the next installments until after NANO. I plan to be on automatic pilot for the next month. I will resume the very difficult subject of the quest to write soul-opening spec-fic in December. I hope that also gives time for some more people to weigh in. The discussion on it was not as muscular as I had hoped. And I do prefer to have more input.

    So, with an apology for postponing that until a later date, I hope that today’s subject does not disappoint. I happen to believe this is one legitimate way to write soul-opening speculative fiction. So, really, it’s not that far afield.

    (It’s also possible I’ll get guest posters for November. I’m assuming I’ll be Nano-Brain-Fried. If you’ve been itching to post on a particular topic here at Speculative Faith, but have been afraid to ask, ask me. I don’t bite.)

    Now, this day’s topic: How To Bring Myths and Fairy Tales Back From The Dead And Into  The  Light, Part One.

    I have to give Veronica Schanoes credit for inspiring that title. I thank her and Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling and Tanith Lee for the work they’ve done in the last 20+ years, work that awakened me tot he power of the retold tale of wonder. (Fairy tales are sometimes referred to as wonder tales, since fairies are not often actually part of said tales.)

    Stylistically, I will be using quotes from Schanoes’ exquisite, allusive, poetic story titled “How To Bring Someone Back Fromthe Dead.” The link takes you to its glorious entirety in the Autumn 2004 edition of the high-quality Journal of the Mythic Arts. I will also refer to one of my favorite fairytale/wonder tale retellings, a Snow White transformed by Tanith Lee called “Red As Blood.” (If you do not own a copy of RED AS BLOOD: TALES FROM THE SISTERS GRIMMER, then you need to eBay or amazon.com or google yourself up a copy ASAP. Brilliant.)

    And so we begin:

    “It hurts tocome back from the dead. And it hurts to bring someone back from the dead.”

    Myths and fairy tales are meant to be repeated, told often, told again. The lesson is always there to be learned. A caution against laziness or vanity or transgressing the laws of divinity or king.. An insight into dark human dealings. A lament over dysfunctional families and the strength needed to overcome early tragedy. A goad to the straggler to continue the quest for identity and truth and rewards. A comfort to the poor and unwanted who dream of being somebody: a beauty hidden in an ash heap, a cloaked princess laboring as a scullery maid, a longsuffering soldier disguised as a filthy vagabond.

    Fairy tales are ripe for reconstruction. Those of us who love speculative fiction would be foolish not to mine the riches of this mountain. Fairy tales let you explore morality without hip sarcasm. You can be earnest, and yet not seem preachy or sappy, because the tales already come loaded with right and wrong. Here’s a place that lets you have a moral and have it unabashedly. Do you want a romantic, happy ending—this is your kingdom. Do you want to explore the fight of the good against the wicked, of men against demons and devils, of the wise versus the foolish: This ground gives birth to such stories.

    But whatever is often told and told and told the same way becomes a tad stale, loses some color, loses some life—at least until a new generation is born and grows old enough to hear them with fresh ears. So, let’s bring them back from the dead.  It’s hard work. It may hurt. But Christians believe in the value of resurrection, and more, in the necessity of it. Things ache to live again. Stories do, too

    “The woods will be the only real place. That is why you must bring bright colors with you-dressing all in black is a mistake. . . .  Do not let the person you want to bring back drink your blood…. She is young and she has cherry-red lips and hair black as the raven’s wing.”

    If, when, you read Schanoes story, you will bump against one allusion to myth and fairy tale after another. They come at you fast and strong, bright feathers flapping. Above she mentions the woods. (The play by Sondheim may come to mind: INTO THE WOODS.)
    Why is the “woods” the only real place?

    Because things that speak of mortal and eternal truths dwell there, and have dwelt there for millenia,  and tales that teach the most important lessons wander there, along with  Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Bearskin, the Devil, Pan, Diana the Huntress, centaurs and trolls. The Green Man peers out of the oldest trees in the woods. Nymphs and fairies gambol among the wildflowers. Elves build cities there, and men seek them out. Owls speak and the moon takes a nap in the branches. Unicorns ride and dwarves traipse to their mines in there, whistling, on the way to work. Princesses get lost there,only to be found and fed. The Months of the Year drink wine and tell stories there.

    Woods can be friendly or menacing, nurturing or destructive. Everything is vivid and everything matters in the woods.

    Now, how can you bring the stories once more to life, clothing them brightly for a new generation with the all the colors of the living God who hangs a rainbow in the sky for a sign?

    You have to go as deep as you dare into the woods of these tales. There you find a character that no one noticed before hiding and watching Rapunzel…for what reason? And who is Rapunzel, anyway? Why does her hair grow that long? Why does a witch care for her and isolate her? What the heck kind of hair products does she use?

    There you find a villain with secrets and deeds with consequences? Why does the Devil want that soldier’s soul more than anyone else’s? Why does he hide his gold in the forest in that tree? Why is picking a rose such a dangerous thing for a merchant? Why was that Beast Prince so cruel? Why were the stepsisters so greedy and mean? Why are the fathers so dang stupid? Or were they? Were they cunning and egotistical and covering it up with sham affection? Was Beauty a clever plotter and her stepsisters maligned? Was the Beast a pervert punished for bestiality? Were the flowers plucked murder, because each flower was actually an unborn child’s soul?

    The woodsman’s magic axe says, “Ask questions. Ask questions you’re afraid to ask. Only then will you get answers that matter.”

    There you find a quest or a conflict or a fear or a love. There you find the truth that begs to be dug up. Don’t tell the tale in the tired old way.  God says a sing a new song. I say write a new tale of the woods and the woodsmen.

    Take Snow White. Or rather, take Tanith Lee’s take on her in “Red As Blood”:

    Speculum, speculum,” said the Witch Queen to the magic mirror. “Dei gratia.”

    Volente Deo, Audio.”

    “Mirror,” said the Witch Queen. “Whom do you see?”

    “I see you, mistress,” replied the mirror. “And all in the land, but one.”

    The mirror does not see Bianca (meaning white), because this version of Snow White is not a lovely, innocent, good, witch-hounded princess, but rather a vampiress.And vampires don’t have reflections in mirrors, right? So a central item in the familiar Snow White tale—the mirror that only sees Snow White—is now a mirror that doesn’t see her at all. Total turnaround. Her pale skin, black hair, and red lips fit the Goth-Vamp ideal. Her lips are red because she drinks blood. Her teeth are sharp. Her skin shows the consummate palor of the undead.

    Snow isn’t the only one transformed in the retelling: The seven dwarves become seven black, gnarled, enchanted trees that do her malevolent bidding. The witch queen is a good witch who goes to church and reads the Bible and tries to bring Snow White into the faith of Christ to save her from her curse.

    And even the prince who is Snow White’s true love changes, becomes the Ultimate Prince, the one who not only gives literal life to the beloved, but transforms the vampires to a thing no longer black with sin, no longer red with blood-thirst, but totally white. Christ rides in and changes Bianca first to a pure dove—white, and only white—a dove that flies back in time and across thewoods, back to the palace, back to her childhood, back to the good Stepmother (another turn of convention) who hangs a  gold cross about Bianca’s young neck. She gets a second chance. The whole kingdom does. And so it ends with the Witch Queen asking the mirror whom he sees:

    “I see you, mistress,” replied the mirror. “And all the land. I see Bianca.”

    I get very moved by that redemptive ending and that beautiful last line.

    Look, you, yourself. Look closely at Cinderella and at Beauty with her Beast and at the Little Mermaid and Rumpelstiltskin and the Seven Swans with the eyes of faith and full of godly truth, what do you see in those stories? What gaps need to be filled? What elements can be changed to retell it with more depth, more characterization? How can these characters be given a faith dimension and not just a “moral”one? How can redemption line up more closely with the redemption that involves blood, thorns, lashes, spears, sacrifice, death, resurrection, return?

    You don’t have to have a Christ, but Lee’s story shows you can, if you do it well. And, okay, if you do it first. Fairy tales have good princes and handsome bridegrooms, and Christ isthe Bridegroom and the Prince of Peace. How can you make our truth work in the forest of myth and the woods of wonder tales without being trite or tired or flat?

    Go into the woods, Christian, and rearrange the burrows and copses. Paint the wildflowers in new colors. Teach a new song to the birds and put wiser advice in the mouth of the owl. Change the owl to something else. A girl become owl. A boy become wind. A mother become the moon or the sun or the water in the well. And ask why? Why must this be so? What truth makes it so? Give the wolves new names. Face off with the witch in a way no one expects. Redeem the stepmother and the witch.

    Go into the woods.

    NextWeek: Part Two of How To Bring Myths and Fairy Tales Back From The Dead And Into The Light:

    Teaser:

    “Perhaps you will have to make your way through thorns and brambles.

    Perhaps the thorns will take out your eyes and you will not see anything at all. “

    The Trouble With Time Travel

    Since some of us are exploring the various genres within the SFF umbrella—all of the subgenres and quirky hybrids, I thought it would be interesting to discuss time travel. At the ACFW conference I heard that while editors aren’t actively […]
    | Oct 26, 2006 | No comments |

    Since some of us are exploring the various genres within the SFF umbrella—all of the subgenres and quirky hybrids, I thought it would be interesting to discuss time travel. At the ACFW conference I heard that while editors aren’t actively seeking fantasy, they would acquire it if the right story crossed their desk. . .not so for time travel. Editors are actively avoiding it. This came up because I had planned to pitch my time travel before my fantasy. Someone kindly pointed out my lack of wisdom.

    Honestly? I haven’t even decided if this particular wip IS a time travel. I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s fortunate I haven’t written it yet. You’re probably wondering how it’s even possible to not KNOW if your story is a time travel. But back to the topic. The trouble with time travel is that editors are avoiding it. But it doesn’t end there.

    When I was in school I excelled in math, won awards, all of that. Except when it came to word problems. I couldn’t understand them. Still can’t. It all boils down to understanding how something works. I never really understood math, yet I could remember the rules and use them. But ask me the whys of an equation. Forgeddaboudit.

    This isn’t a good analogy but it’s the best way to convey how I feel about time travel. I just don’t get it!

    Perhaps it’s not something we’re to understand, but rather we are to accept it. Perhaps it’s only a tool to place a contemporary character into a historical or futuristic setting and see how he or she reacts. I can buy that. But then, it never fails, all of these little questions begin to niggle me.

    In Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy he explains that first and foremost, we are to know the rules of our world:

    . . . world creation sounds like a marvelous free-for –all, in which you come up with all kinds of ideas, ask “why” and “how” and “what result” a lot, and when there’s a really big pile of good stuff, you sit down and write.

    I wish it were that easy. But that big pile of neat ideas is just that—a pile , shapeless, chaotic. Before you can tell meaningful story, you have to hone and sharpen your understanding of the world, and that begins with the fundamental rules, the natural laws.

    Remember, because speculative fiction always differs from the know-able world, the reader is uncertain about what can and can’t happen in the story until the writer has spelled out the rules. And you, as a writer, can’t be certain of anything until you know the rules as well.

    Those are important words that all SFF writers should live by. As I’ve already told you, just give me the rules and I can work with it. Card goes on to outline rules for writing time-travel. But when writing a complex novel you need more than rules, you need to understand the concept fully. Dean Koontz expresses this quandary about one of his own books in a Q&A.

    Halfway through LIGHTNING, as I realized the full challenge of keeping to the rules of the story and not creating any paradoxes, I began to hyperventilate so urgently that my office windows vibrated from continuous rapid pressure changes. During a particularly dramatic attack of hyperventilation, I inhaled a passing cat, which had to be removed from my sinuses by emergency surgery. Truly, there were moments when, straining to think through the thicket of potential paradoxes, I felt like my head would explode, and the only time I usually feel like my head is going to explode is when I’m strapped into a chair and forced to watch old episodes of the Teletubbies, which fortunately doesn’t happen more than once a month. That’s why I will probably never write another novel with a time-travel element.

    Koontz has also outlined several paradoxes in his book, Writing Popular Fiction. On my next post, I plan to relate some of the rules per Card and the paradoxes per Koontz. I know this is nothing new to you quantum physicists and I would love to hear your take or theories.

    Blessings!
    Beth.

    Nine Marks Of Widescreen Stories, Part 3

    The last, and second, installment in this Nine Marks of Widescreen Fiction series, Staying off ‘the bench of bishops,’ went a little long, much more so than part 1: Building a foundational, permeating Biblical worldview. Of the two, the first […]
    | Oct 25, 2006 | No comments |

    The last, and second, installment in this Nine Marks of Widescreen Fiction series, Staying off ‘the bench of bishops,’ went a little long, much more so than part 1: Building a foundational, permeating Biblical worldview.

    Of the two, the first is more do, the second contains more highly suggested don’ts. Thus the second was slightly more negative in tone, because of the unfortunate influence of microwave-mindset “missionary work” in Christendom — the kind that insists we have to present overt Christianity in whatever ways we can find, using whatever Methods we can find to get that across, including stories.

    Here, this third installment will be a little of both: positive and negative. That’s because for too long, many Christians, in their zeal to proclaim the message, have not only often compromised the message itself, but God-honoring creativity and originality as well.

    3. Creating fantastic work that rivals the best of “secular” stories

    Has anyone heard much about the Harry Potter uproar lately?

    Perhaps Christian media just haven’t bee reporting the “controversy” as much, but to me it seems the objections have largely faded anyway. That may be because the series is slowly being absorbed into the culture and doesn’t seem as “dangerous” — after all, Star Wars is just as mystical and we put up with that easily enough.

    But despite one’s reactions to Harry Potter, it’s quite clear that J.K. Rowling has illustrated, once again, how popular well-written fantasy can be. And some Christians, in response to that truth, took up another creed: If you can’t beat them, join them.

    Thus, Christian bookstores’ youth-fiction shelves (and even some of the sections for grown-ups) now contain Potter-inspired knock-offs, featuring kids fighting Evil and things like that, with the use of decidedly non-pagan Magic. Meanwhile, at least one other series seems to mimic intentionally the Lemony Snicket books; another novel I skimmed through is a direct Christian Response to Star Wars.

    A definite positive exists here, I noted while bookstore-browsing: these young readers will grow up, and continue seeking new speculative works such as these.

    But in Christians’ haste not to yell at Harry Potter and the like, and instead to write books replacing him, are we not looking a little silly? In an alternate reality, for example, a mixed bookstore would contain split loyalties like a Winn-Dixie supermarket. Stacks of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban would occupy one shelf, and right next door would be the Religio-Generic version of the series: If you like Harry Potter, try me! The same with Star Wars: If you liked Episode III, try me!

    GQ magazine’s sarcastro-columnist Walter Kirn laughed at that sort of thing, at least in regard to Christian music, in his Sept. 2002 piece “What Would Jesus Watch?” While visiting a bookstore in Bozeman, Montana, he noted an exact if-you-like-X-try-Y chart many of you might have seen:

    [A] poster above the music racks matches name-brand acts from secular radio with their closest sanctified equivalents. For the atheist teen who has suddenly been converted and wants to carry into his new life as many of his old attitudes and tastes as he can safely manage, such a chart would prove helpful, I imagine, much as a cookbook of sugar-free recipes might help a chocoholic with diabetes. For me, though, the chart confirmed a preconception that Christian rock is a cultural oxymoron — a calculated, systematic rip-off, not a genuine surge of inspired energy.

    To be sure, Kirn, no Christian himself, might laugh at Christ-followers’ beliefs and products no matter what they are. And his article’s criticism does seem pathetic in some places: firstly, because not all Christian musicians are calculating “systematic rip-offs.” And later, Kirn suggests author Ted Dekker just rips off the same style of Clancy or Grisham “potboilers” with “stick-figure characterizations” and “preschool prose.” This is hardly true for Dekker — especially in Kirn’s naming of Dekker’s novel Heaven’s Wager as supposedly a prime example.

    Yet Christians can’t merely incant “that’s worldly persecution” to explain these objections, and just quickly return to the same method of mining the Culture for new ideas, then recycling them as “sanctified” and treat this as true Creativity.

    Firstly, the justification for this has often been “do whatever we can to proclaim the Message.” But when one understands that no, God’s Holy Spirit will convey the Message to those who will listen, sometimes in bits and pieces over years and not always all at once — well, that allows us a bit of literary leeway. Our fiction can uphold a Biblical worldview naturally and need not always be “proselytizing.” And because most of the story readers are Christians or at least Churchians already, why not include deeper, more-epic messages anyway? (More on this in part 4.)

    Secondly, God Himself, as Creator, has given us the capacity to mimic that behavior, as His primary creations in His own image. From the Creation to the Tabernacle in Exodus and onward, He’s encouraged us to work with our hands, to make technology, methods, arts and crafts that glorify Him.

    Thirdly, doesn’t it just seem a little silly to generate official “Bible studies” based on classic TV shows, intentional-clone music groups, anime-imitative comics with Salvation themes, and books themed after whatever’s popular at the time in the secular domain — Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc.? As Kirn noted, that sort of thing may be helpful at first to new believers, but we can move on. We can show people, either Christians or secular observers like Kirn, something beyond Anything They can do, we can do just the same, only with Spirituality.

    Instead our informal motto should be Anything They can do, we can do better! Or, even better than that, Anything they can do, we’ve probably already done anyway.

    That especially relates to writing speculative fiction. The Bible, the most popular, best-selling, oldest, most collaborative-and-yet-consistent work of nonfiction stories in existence, is the primary example of “speculative” work. Its themes, characters, plotlines and widescreen-sized story arcs are fantastic! Its truths are our ultimate source material, and it just doesn’t get better than that.

    Thus, we already own the fantasy/epic fiction genre long before others happened along to find it, even before Tolkien and Lewis wrote their classical works (guess what was their source material?). Christians are the humble inheritors of incredible legacies — the Church, of course, along with concepts like environmental stewardship (Garden of Eden), law and morality (Mt. Sinai) and science (Newton, Bacon, Boyle, Pasteur, etc.; and we also have a nice little ideological share in real-life space travel, thanks to Dr. Wernher von Braun).

    So why give up these incredible inheritances in favor of digging around in the stale pop-culture stew? Christ-honoring creativity, without bothering as much about whatever’s most popular according to Neilson’s, the box office or the Billboard Top Ten, is much longer-lasting, and particularly the few works of widescreen fiction to which we can lay claim.

    Ergo, let’s create more of those — not merely more devotionals based on reality TV or official study guides for popular movies. In media, as with everywhere else, the pathetically non-creative Devil plagiarizes God constantly; we shouldn’t try to plagiarize his plagiarisms.

    Instead, we’re part of the Kingdom of the God of the fantastic, the Creator of the universe Himself. He was here first, and therefore, ipso facto, He’s the most original and artistic Being one can imagine. Thus, to reflect His glory even more by imagining original, fantastic and parallel worlds in stories should actually be much easier than we might think. What an incredible opportunity!

    Shortly Late

    My apologies for the lateness an brevity of this posting. We live in a fantastical world. Can you remember back to when you first saw an elephant? Or perhaps a kangaroo? What about the first time you saw the ocean, […]
    | Oct 24, 2006 | No comments |

    My apologies for the lateness an brevity of this posting.

    We live in a fantastical world. Can you remember back to when you first saw an elephant? Or perhaps a kangaroo? What about the first time you saw the ocean, or soaring mountain peaks? Or perhaps when you encountered your first sky-scraper or other man-made monolith?

    As humans we long to be wowed and amazed…even as we continually march forward with the insistance of making everything the mundane.

    We long to rekindle that feeling we first had when learning that dinosaurs really were real once, and secretly hoped that maybe, somewhere, a few still lived.

    We are an exploratory race, always seeking to find that which is unknown, and understand that which has yet to be asked.

    All traits given to us by a God to help us seek him out and desire to know Him as fully as possible.

    I think this is why fantasy and science fiction can be so totally universal.  The very conventions of the genres speak to some of the most basic and fundamental yearnings of the human spirit.

    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.