Something Else To Learn From The Secular, Part 1

Yes, I’m unashamedly riffing off of Becky’s Most Excellent Title of a few weeks ago. (AND borrowing a Mir phrase. I’m so unoriginal … but hey, there’s nothing new under the sun.) The discussion du jour on one of my […]
| Sep 7, 2006 | No comments |

Yes, I’m unashamedly riffing off of Becky’s Most Excellent Title of a few weeks ago. (AND borrowing a Mir phrase. I’m so unoriginal … but hey, there’s nothing new under the sun.)

The discussion du jour on one of my Christian SF/F fanlists is what we consider “must-reads” on the Christian side of the genre. The point was made that what goes for good writing for secular side goes for Christians, too, and so the list of must-reads was expanded to include more than what’s been put out by the CBA.

To longtime fans of the genre, I’m sure this seems a no-brainer. Christian fans of SF/F are often quite a different lot from the average “Christian reader,” though.

I do not intend that as an insult to either side. I’ve been on both sides myself—first a teenager who dived heedlessly into whatever tickled my fancy, then gradually becoming aware that I didn’t like how I felt inside after reading certain stories. Eventually, I nearly stopped reading fiction altogether because the need of my life was not being met by anything I read at the time. When I made my foray back into fiction, it was cautiously, because I was still very sensitive spiritually, and I chose mostly Christian fiction to read because of the content of much secular work. But by that time, I’d learned enough to realize that some people really do have more tolerance for “unwanted” elements. I’m one of those impressionable types who, if I read too much profanity, I find that it starts permeating my thinking, and then my speech. My husband, on the other hand, despite years in the military and a varied diet of both secular and Christian authors, does not have my propensity to salty language—even when he’s furious.

So, I shouldn’t have found it surprising, when I made my foray into the Christian fen community (their collective term for SF/F fans), that so many people were more fond of “secular” SF/F, and less of the “Christian” variety. But I did. Even more surprising, though, was to find that many contemporary authors being published on the secular side are believers, and that their stories are thus infused with solid moral if not openly Christian themes. Where were these people when I was originally into the genre?

I’ve done a lot of thinking, though, about why longtime fans of the genre aren’t fond of CBA SF/F. I’ve come to the conclusion that there will always be some who, for various reasons, use how “clean” a work is as their first criteria for what they read. Some of these would argue that all Christians should hold this as their primary criteria. But I have come to see the value of looking for the redemptive in pieces that some might not choose to read (or view, in the case of film), because of certain content.

So where do we draw the line between secular fiction that may contain objectionable material, but is still good fiction, and the stuff that is truly trash? I’m afraid that answer is going to be different for everyone. Sounds like a cop-out, perhaps, but there is Scriptural evidence that God will send some of His people where He forbids others to go.

And there is plenty of Scriptural precedent for taking things of the world—even works of art dedicated to idolatry—and using it to convince people of God’s truth. More on that next time.

Why Fantasy? – Part 3

Sometimes I feel like the most blessed person on earth. Every single day I get messages, either through e-mail or postal mail, telling me how my books have affected someone’s life for the better. When I first began writing Christian-based […]
| Sep 6, 2006 | No comments |

Sometimes I feel like the most blessed person on earth. Every single day I get messages, either through e-mail or postal mail, telling me how my books have affected someone’s life for the better. When I first began writing Christian-based fantasy, I hoped the stories would help some readers, but I had no idea that the response would be so huge.

I put together a page of some of the responses to give you an idea of their content. Here’s the link: Click Here

These are just a few, and although I haven’t counted, I think the number of responses I’ve received is now over two thousand—from simple rebuilding of faith to prevention of suicide. And when I think that each message probably represents many, many more, I am overwhelmed with blessed satisfaction.

Why does Christian fantasy affect readers so profoundly? I don’t know for sure, but I have an idea.

I believe fantasy allows us to write about characters we would all like to be. It displays heroes who are powerful, courageous, and holy. The overwhelming favorite character in my series is a teenager named Bonnie Silver. She is faithful, brave, and loyal—my ideal girl. She has fears and doubts, but she conquers them with an amazing faith.

Some have called her “unrealistic,” but my readers (and I) beg to differ. They believe they can be like her. One girl embroidered “Bonnie Silver” on her cap. She told me that every time she puts it on, it reminds her to have faith like Bonnie’s. Another girl and her friend memorized a prayer Bonnie says, a two-and-a-half page prayer, and they pray it together before school, putting the names of their unsaved friends in the prayer.

The fantasy hero, usually an unlikely hero, is someone we can identify with. Most of us long to do something great, to step beyond the mundane and make a real difference. When we see a fantasy character achieving that kind of great feat, our hearts are right with him. The unbelievable, at least for a moment, becomes believable, and our hearts leap.

I think God programs that desire into us. He wants us to step beyond the normal and walk into the realm of what seems impossible. As we walk in that realm with Him, He shows us how to achieve something great for His kingdom. What seemed fantastic and beyond our reach, comes into view and into our grasp, and we really can complete that fantasy journey.

So, I believe Christian fantasy, unlike any other genre, opens the door of faith to allow us to believe the impossible. It shows us that the spiritual world is real, and we can be those unlikely heroes who complete awesome adventures. We really can be strong, brave, and holy.

As each new message comes into my mailbox, I realize that my own awesome adventure, my dream of how writing can change lives, is coming true, and in a way that is far beyond anything I hoped for.

Bryan Davis

Interview With Jeff Gerke

I’m pleased to be able to present this interview with freelance editor, Jeff Gerke. Jeff has been influential in forwarding the cause of Christian speculative fiction within the Christian fiction market. He is continuing the championing of the speculative genres […]
| Sep 5, 2006 | No comments |

I’m pleased to be able to present this interview with freelance editor, Jeff Gerke. Jeff has been influential in forwarding the cause of Christian speculative fiction within the Christian fiction market. He is continuing the championing of the speculative genres with his new site  But I’ll let him tell you more about that. So without further ado, let the interview begin.

1. If you were an alien or fantasy being, what kind would you be, and why?

Awesome first question. Totally gets me into the mood of the interview. I thought about saying I’d be some kind of non-human character, but whenever I dream about living in fantasy worlds I’m always a human paladin. In the epic fantasy novel I’m currently working on the hero is a Luke Skywalker-type young man from the backwoods who dreams of becoming a paladin—and gets his wish. Paladins are warriors, hardened from training and discipline. But they’re also holy men, men of prayer. The idea of the holy warrior is very appealing to me as a writer and a person.

2. What Christian speculative fiction work is your favorite or has most influenced you?

Definitely Lord of the Rings. Boring and predictable, I know, but what can I say? I discovered LOTR in college and couldn’t read them fast enough. I thought, if fiction can do that, I want to figure out how to do fiction.

3. What secular speculative fiction work is your favorite or has most influenced you?

Do movies count? If so, I’ll have to say the original Star Wars (Episode IV). I encountered that when I was 12. It impacted me on a tremendously deep level, as if George Lucas had figured out how to plug his movie straight into my cerebral cortex. Note that Luke was also a holy warrior.

The cool thing about both Star Wars and LOTR (and several other fantasies) is that they’re both “hero’s journey” stories. I’m referring to Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth,” the story of stories he encountered in every civilization throughout history. I see this story as man’s story, and as such, as part of the fingerprint of God in every human soul. There’s a reason this story—of a young person dreaming for adventure and finally cast into it, of learning the spiritual truths of the world, of encountering the evil one, and of returning home with wisdom—resonates with all of us. I think God’s hand is involved in that.

The epic fantasy I’m working on is a hero’s journey story.

4. What is your vision for Christian speculative fiction?

Part of my vision is what I’m doing over at I long for a place—similar to ritersbloc [Ed. Speculative Faith]—where those of us who love Christian speculative fiction can come together and celebrate the wonder of the kind of fiction we love.

From my perspective from both sides of the author/editor scenario in Christian publishing—both as a published novelist and as a fiction editor—is that Christian speculative fiction has made some progress since This Present Darkness, but not much. There are more titles in these genres than we realize (the booklist I have at features over 250 Christian speculative novels), but still there is not much, all things considered.

My desire is for Christian speculative fiction to not have to justify its existence anymore, that it can stand unashamedly next to romances and chick-lits, that no one raises an eyebrow if there’s a dragon or spaceship on the front cover of a Christian novel.

Through I have a dream of becoming a small print-on-demand publisher producing original novels in this genre. If the site goes well and begins generating some income, I may be able to do that sooner rather than later. By offering original Christian speculative fiction directly to the people who want it, we bypass whatever roadblocks there may be in the current CBA system.

5. Print on demand books have a real stigma in many circles, being seen as not a valid avenue of publishing, or of being of an equal quality with books from more traditional publishers. Do you have a plan on how to overcome that stigma? Or is that something you see as slipping into the past?

I understand that question and the stigma. I think the quality issue is a thing of the past, though. The samples I’ve received from LightingSource have been high quality. They look like they came from a standard publisher. The cover design for Marcher Lord Press books would be done by the same guys who are doing the covers for all the major CBA publishers, so no quality drop there. The editing, copyediting, and typesetting, too, will be done by professionals in the industry, people doing the same work for CBA publishers today. No quality drop there, either. And, of course, the writing will be great.

I can see how an author, especially one just getting started, might not want to publish with a POD outfit because the unit sales are not typically as high as with standard CBA publishers. Such an author might not want to have such low-selling titles on his or her résumé. I completely understand that stance. However, once you’ve been around that block a few times, as I have, you may find that those things aren’t as important to you as they once were. You realize that you know enough people and have enough connections that you could probably get published somewhere with just about anything you’d like to write.

So then you start thinking about what you want to write. You start getting back to the stories burning in your heart that have not been welcomed by the major publishers. You start yearning for a way to get the goods straight to the people who want them. You start writing something because it’s what you want to write, or feel led to write, not what will necessarily please the masses.

Don’t hear me saying that every author ought to “see the light” and begin POD publishing. No. Most CBA novelists are right where they need to be. But a few of us have reached a point where we want to get the speculative stories we want to write to the people who can appreciate them. Even if that means taking a lower advance. Even if the sales numbers won’t equal what we’d get with other stories at traditional publishers.

Who knows, maybe if we do this for a while the rest of the industry will see that this kind of fiction is a safe bet and will be willing to open the door even wider to speculative fiction. Then everybody wins.

6. What are some common mistakes you’ve seen in aspiring speculative fiction writers?

Good question. There’s really no difference between the mistakes aspiring speculative fiction writers make vs. the mistakes aspiring novelists in any genre make. The first is simply not taking the time to learn the craft of fiction. You may have the coolest Zubonian Rhymbots ever seen by man or beast, but if you haven’t mastered POV and show vs. tell and character and pacing and the rest, your wonderful world will never see the light of publishing day. Get a copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne & King and master its every technique.

There may actually be one fiction gaffe that afflicts speculative novelists more than other novelists, and that’s the danger of falling in love with the made-up world to the point of having no story or characters. Usually a beginning novelist is much better at either plot or characters. Both have to be good or the novel doesn’t work. But with speculative fiction there’s a third pitfall: being good at creating the world but not being good at plot and characters as well.

We can become so interested in our world and its history and government systems and legends, etc., that we forget (or never knew how in the first place) to make a great story with interesting characters in that great world. It’s possible, as with Tolkien, to make the land a character in the book. But it can’t be the only character.

7. Should Christians really be exploring the various genres of speculative fiction and would you consider anything to be off limits?

Absolutely we should be exploring them. We ought to own these genres. Who knows good vs. evil better than Christians? Who understands demonic enemies better than Christians? Who understands archangels and paragons of good, who understands the fantastic invading the mundane, who understands accessing extradimensional power better than Christians? Secular SFF is full of spiritual and supernatural elements these days. That’s our territory and it’s time we took it back.

As far as off-limits, I think we should stay away from anything that stirs up the flesh. I think we could be telling vampire tales, for instance, but we shouldn’t be taking the sensual, even erotic, route that secular vampire stories take. We could be doing Goth and horror (though I prefer the term “chiller”) and the rest, I suppose, though we need to be sure we’re not providing the godless elements that the secular counterparts provide. Horror for the purpose of giving Christians the creeps…? I don’t know. I’d best withhold judgment. If God is leading someone to write in a certain genre, I wouldn’t want to be speaking against that. We just need to be sure we’re not sowing to the flesh when we do it (Galatians 6:8).

8. What is

Glad you asked! There are many wonderful sites out there, like ritersbloc, that offer a great place to go and congregate for people who love Christian speculative fiction. However, I thought that because of my background I could provide one that was slightly different. The emphasis at is a little more geared toward those who wish to write and publish in these genres.

Of course I offer a lot to those who love to simply read in the genres: a giant booklist of Christian speculative fiction, interviews with the pillars in the industry (my first interview is with Frank Peretti; Jerry Jenkins is next, followed by Ted Dekker), and even original short fiction by some of these authors. But I also offer a ton of information, resources, and utilities for those who are all about creating their own speculative stories: articles on writing, idea starters, world builders, and information on the current state of the Christian publishing industry.

If I’m known for anything in the Christian publishing industry it’s for liking this kind of fiction. I’m the editor who likes “the weird stuff.” (I love it.) So it made sense for me to create a site that pulled all of this together.
Through the site I’ll also be offering my services as a book doctor, editor, and even writer or co-writer.
I hope will be a helpful addition to the great sites that are already out there for people who like this kind of fiction. I hope to provide an element that might be missing from the aggregate.

Future plans for the site include contests, live chats, forums, collaborative fiction projects, and even the publication of original speculative novels.

9. What inspired you to start the site?

Partially because I wanted to create a place for these people to come together. It’s a genre I love. It’s a group of people I love. Because I know so many of the authors writing in these genres and because I’m kind of known for liking this fiction, it was a natural for me to do a site like this.

I also wanted to do it for myself. I love wading in these waters. I was amazed and personally helped when I saw that the booklist I generated (which I hope will instantly become the premier such list on the Web) had so many titles. I looked around at other lists online and saw some that had 20 or even 40 titles, so imagine my surprise when mine had 250 and could’ve had more! That was cool.

I think it would also be cool if the site generated a large readership that would then be interested in original Christian speculative novels when I was able to produce them. Instead of me having to go out and find the people who might be interested in these novels, those people would’ve already found me and I could just say, “Oh, by the way, we now offer these new novels. Might you be interested?”

It’s all part of my master plan, you see. Everything is proceeding according to my ultimate design…

10. Can you tell us a bit about your own journey of writing and editing speculative fiction?

My first-ever novel was a fantasy about a guy who had the gifts of a warrior but who was bound by his faith’s restrictions against taking human life. I was very interested in that dilemma. Still am, actually—my 4th, 5th, and 6th published novels are about a modern-day warrior who has strong feelings against killing. Anyway, that first novel was pretty awful and will never be published, but oh the joy of creating and living in an alternate world. I was completely hooked.

My first published novels were only a little less speculative: they were near-future SF stories involving virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and genetic engineering. The idea of virtual worlds, and virtual life, was and is very interesting to me.

The novel I’m working on now (which can be sampled at is an epic fantasy. It is the novel of my life, my magnum opus. No pressure, right? I’ve been working on the world, the plot, and the characters for over 4 years now. Ahhhh…

As far as editing, the first speculative novel I ever edited was Nancy Moser’s Time Lottery, an awesome story about people who get to go back in time to a crucial point in their own lives and decide whether or not to take a different path this time around. That novel won a Christy Award in the Visionary category.

When I was on staff at Strang Communications I had the honor of conceiving, designing, crafting, and launching Realms, an imprint dedicated to Christian speculative fiction. The first imprint of its kind in the CBA. We launched with an epic fantasy, a time travel novel, a SF, and a spiritual warfare novel. I acquired and edited all of those. Amazing fun.

When I moved to NavPress to direct their fiction line I was always looking to bring in more speculative fiction. I acquired a fantasy trilogy by Sharon Hinck, aided the development of Austin Boyd’s SF trilogy about manned voyages to Mars, and acquired a novel that was essentially a book-long conversation between the reader and a demon.

If I could do nothing but help Christian speculative novelists do their thing, I would be perfectly happy. So long as I could do my own writing, too.

In a way, that’s what I’m hoping to do now that I’m a freelancer. Through I hope to work with individuals—like your readers—who long to be published with their fiction but who need a little experienced help. That’s what I’m there for! Now if I could just figure out how to move my own novels forward, too…

11. Are you currently working on any new writing projects?

Just the epic fantasy referenced above. Ahhh… (

12. Which of your published works are you most proud of?

I’m proud of all six of my novels. The ones that get the least recognition become my favorites, just because they’re my babies, too, and I want them to have a fair shot. I’ve done two trilogies, both of which I love. The first books are near-future technothrillers. The second books are Christian military thrillers with enough high-tech gadgetry to please the staunchest spec fiction fan. Check ’em all out at

13. Which of your unpublished works excites you the most?

Definitely my epic fantasy. I’ve written around 85,000 words of that thing—just in my notes!

14. Any thoughts on how to build grassroots support for the Christian speculative fiction market?

Things like what you’re doing here and what I’m doing at have to be at the top of the list. Blog tours are good, too.

Then if we can just generate a little niche publishing operation, as well, we wouldn’t even need the existing system of Christian publishers and Christian bookstores. Not that those things aren’t important or should go away. Not at all. It’s just that I’d be happy to let them keep doing their thing and serving their demographic so long as we in our demographic can happily do our thing, too.

15. You’ve recently become a freelance editor. Do you have a price list for services yet? How should people contact you for more information?

I’m a full-service editorial provider. [grin] Whatever you need—anything from reviewing a proposal for you before you take it to a writer’s conference, to providing book doctoring services, to performing full edits—I know I can find a way to accommodate you. For current rates, just send a blank e-mail message to That will generate an automatic message with my services and rates. For direct contact with me, folks can write me at

16. How can we pray for you during this time of transition in your life?

Thank you for asking. Pray that through my various editorial and writing endeavors I can generate a solid and steady income that will be sufficient to support my family for the long haul. Freelancing is perfect for my temperament—but it has to work financially or I have to give it up and get a real job. Pray also that God will make a way for me to write and publish my own fiction, as well. When I’m not writing, a part of me suffers.
Thank you for the prayers and for having me as a guest of your awesome site!

The Hero’s Journey—Just A Thought, Just A Question

First a bit of news. There are some exciting things happening with Christian fantasy and science fiction, including the rapid development of the CSFF Blog Tour. Thanks to one of our participants, the organization has a web site, a place […]

First a bit of news. There are some exciting things happening with Christian fantasy and science fiction, including the rapid development of the CSFF Blog Tour. Thanks to one of our participants, the organization has a web site, a place to inform readers where the tour will be headed and who all is involved. If you’re interested, check out the CSFF Tour page.

Also, tomorrow Donita Paul will be doing a live chat with the ACFW book club which has spent the last week discussing her latest release, DragonKnight. Here is the announcement from the Book Club Coordinator:

The ACFW Book Club will be chatting with Donita K. Paul,, Tuesday night, September 5, at 7:00 PM CT. Everyone is welcome, so feel free to forward this email to anyone who would be interested in attending. We have just finished reading Donita’s book, DragonKnight. Our discussion will include, but is not limited to, this book. Please drop by and make Donita feel welcome! 8 PM ET 7 PM CT 6 PM MT 5 PM PT

Here is the link to the ***NEW*** ACFW chat room:

You do NOT have to register. Just type in a username and login.

– – –

Maybe in part because of a question to Donita about one of her characters, Paladin, who appears to be a Christ figure, I’ve been thinking about what part God should play in our fantasy.

Some Christian authors take the tack of showing God by creating a fantasy religion that mirrors Christianity. Others show Him by creating a type of Christ who enters into the story. Still others only allude to Him while showing His followers engaged in activity to combat His enemy.

It strikes me that in these various methods of “dealing with God” in our stories, we may unintentionally be lessening His impact. Rarely is God the hero of the story.

Instead, in the words of Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, drawn from the mythic studies of Joseph Campbell, God is reduced to the status of mentor, a wise old man or woman:

[The Mentor] stands for the bond between parent and child, teacher and student, doctor and patient, god and man.

It seems to me, then, that the protagonist as hero is a subtle way of supplanting God’s powerful, daily presence that makes all things possible. Vogler again:

It seems obvious that the hero should be the one to act in this climactic moment. But many writers make the mistake of having the hero rescued from death by a timely intervention from an Ally – the equivalent of the cavalry coming to save the day. Heroes can get surprise assistance, but it’s best for the hero to be the one to perform the decisive action; to deliver the death blow to fear or the Shadow; to be active rather than passive, at this [the climax] of all times.

My question. If the protagonist is the hero and he is to render the deathblow, what role does that leave for God?

OK, I have another question. Shouldn’t we as Christian authors, because of the conviction of our worldview, write in a way that sets us apart from the mythic form of the rest of society?

Part One: An Analysis Of Gene Wolfe’s “Bed and Breakfast”: Is It CSF? What Can We Learn?

Note: AT THE BOTTOM of this post, you’ll learn how to win a copy of the collection in which this story may be found. This story stars with one of my favorite “first lines” of all time:  I know an old couple who […]
| Sep 1, 2006 | No comments |

Note: AT THE BOTTOM of this post, you’ll learn how to win a copy of the collection in which this story may be found.

This story stars with one of my favorite “first lines” of all time: 

I know an old couple who live near Hell.

I don’t know how anyone can resist reading on. I certainly could not. What follows is a complex interaction of dialogue and narrative and characterization and situation that leaves us wondering what is truly going on. And that’s a good thing for a reader. And that’s a worthy thing to study for a writer.

Quick Synopsis: A man who regularly visits a rather extraordinarily situated B&B meets a woman who may not be what she says, a demon who may not be who he seems, and finds that the events of a single night may be the crux of his own salvation or damnation. Is he falling in love with a runaway from Hell? Is the demon out to bring her back? Is there a complex devilish (literally) plot to snare his soul? Has he gone mad and none of what’s going on is what he thinks it is?

Structure: This is a first person short story (28 pages) that is the narrator telling an event of his own life from a week prior. Dialogue is of crucial importance, as is the introspection of the narrator. The ending leaves many questions in the air.

Characters: If we take the narrator as reliable—he states himself that he only lies when forced to, and we must decide if he has reason to lie—then the characters are 1. a living human man, 2. a demon, and 3. a dead female runaway from Hell. Secondary character:  the B&B proprietor. No Christians are identified in this tale.

I’m doing this analysis in two parts, because this tale quite longer story than the previous Wolfe story, and longer than the Yolen and the Willis, too.


This is a fantasy story that presumes Hell is real (ergo Heaven is, also), and that angels and demons are also real. In this world, demons are powerful and ruthless and do harm, much harm, to mortals. And they cannot be trusted. This fits well with the Scriptural teachings.

Because it is fantasy, the Hell is the Hell we are familiar with not from the Bible but from works such as Dante and onwards; which is to say, not precisely subtle or populated only by the souls of the lost.  This Hell has demons and devils in a business hierarchy that has its headquarters down below.  Dante is mentioned more than once in the story, so we are to assume that Wolfe is paying homage to the poet’s imagery.

The heart of the story is about Hell—though we never see it—and those bound there. In that the first line is more than a “hook.” It’s utterly brilliant. “I know and old couple who live near Hell.” It’s so mundanely written. They could as easily live near Mount Vernon or The Metropolitan Museum of Art or Niagara Falls. And that is an important point. This is the mundane reality. We all live near Hell. We are all living in proximity to our doom—unless we make the choice otherwise, the conscious choice not to live near Hell, but to live for Heaven.

I’m so jealous I didn’t come up with that line. Sigh.

This is a totally Christian idea: We choose Hell, just as clearly as we can choose Heaven. God is there, inviting the world to choose, from the beginning of human life: choose where you’ll live. Be careful the choices you make, they have consequences.

And this is a story about choices. The runaway’s, the demon’s, the bosses of Hell, and, most importantly, the narrator’s.
I hope I’ve piqued your interest, because now we get to the part where you think and we discuss—

Assignment: Knowing the set-up of this story—a runaway woman from hell drops by as a beggar for a night’s meal and shelter at a Bed & Breakfast, where she meets the narrator, a man who is regularly drawn to this strange place near Hell, and where a demons casually register as guests on their way to and from “business”. The woman seeks the narrator’s aid and protection for the night. The narrator is attracted to the woman—as he is attracted to Hell, itself, surely—and agrees to help. He has  “guards” against demonic influence. But does he?

What will happen next? What will the woman say? What will the demon? What will the narrator?  How do you see this story playing out if it were written for the CBA? How do you think it works out as an ABA story?

Once you comment on where you think it could go, should go, must go, then we’ll discuss where it does go. And then I’ll tell you if this is CSF, and what we can learn as writers (and readers) from this excellent story.  I’ll also post comments from Wolfephile, Elliot H. of Claw of the Conciliator blog.

BOOK GIVEAWAY BLESSING: Because I love this story, I’ll be giving away a free copy of STRANGE TRAVELERS—the collection of Wolfe stories that carries this work—to whomever posts the comment I most enjoy during this two-part analysis. It’s totally subjective and up to me. No names from a hat. And I will not play favorites. If my favorite comment in answer to some of the above questions or next week’s discussion comes from a total stranger, said stranger gets the book.  Also, this is voluntary. If you don’t want the book, I won’t foist it upon the winner. I give you….a choice. Winner will be chosen next weekend. Note that I will need your name and snail mail to send the book if you CHOOSE to accept the prize.

If you need incentive to join the verbal fray for the collection, here is some info from Wikipedia that those of us who have read in SF for years and years already had heard many times:

Although not a best-selling author, Wolfe is highly regarded by critics and fellow writers, and considered by many to be one of the best living science fiction authors. Indeed, he has sometimes been called the best living American writer regardless of genre. Award-winning science fiction author Michael Swanwick has said: “Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today. Let me repeat that: Gene Wolfe is the greatest writer in the English language alive today! I mean it. Shakespeare was a better stylist, Melville was more important to American letters, and Charles Dickens had a defter hand at creating characters. But among living writers, there is nobody who can even approach Gene Wolfe for brilliance of prose, clarity of thought, and depth in meaning.”.

Among others, writers Neil Gaiman and Patrick O’Leary have credited Wolfe for inspiration. O’Leary has said: “Forget ‘Speculative Fiction’. Gene Wolfe is the best writer alive. Period.

If that doesn’t make you want the book, well, I’m aghast and befuddled. 😯

Til next week, my dears.

The Unbeliever

The Unbeliever Finally, I’m back! Many thanks to Shannon for picking up the slack. Stealing  from Stuart’s title, I’ve gotta warning of my own. I have nothing deep and meaningful to say. There is enough intellectual blogging on Spec Faith […]
| Aug 31, 2006 | No comments |

The Unbeliever

Finally, I’m back! Many thanks to Shannon for picking up the slack. Stealing  from Stuart’s title, I’ve gotta warning of my own. I have nothing deep and meaningful to say. There is enough intellectual blogging on Spec Faith to make up for me.

It just so happens that the week I’m able to return to Spec Faith is also my week at Favorite Pastimes. That means I’m not getting much of anything done in the way of preparing for the upcoming ACFW conference or writing my novel. While I’m writing this post, the family is watching Sleepy Hollow. Have you ever seen that? It creeps me out. (Do people still say that?)

Okay, on to something you’re interested in. Maybe. Someone posted a question on one of the many loops I browse that caught my attention. The question pertained to The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever—does anyone still read those? I’m not sure if it was worded exactly that way. Hey, was that you, Mir?

On my first and only post for Spec Faith, I mentioned an editor writing out a list of books for me to read of secular fantasy. One of the books, or I should say six of those books, was/were the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. From now on, I’ll refer to it as Covenant. I’m on book number five now, one to go. It’s really titled the Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant Book Two, but it’s actually book five. Okay, starting from THIS point, I’ll refer to it as Covenant.

As a “newby” to the secular fantasy market there are things that I questioned from the beginning about these books. First, the editor told me that he waited until all six books were out, then he read them one after the other. Immediately that brings to mind the question of how did he know there would be six books. Does anyone know the history here? Did Stephen Donaldson sign a six-book contract with the publisher? Really, I want to know.

Second, I’m always one to look for spiritual meaning in EVERTHING and sometimes this may be a problem because perhaps the author never intended there to be any meaning whatsoever—especially one on a spiritual plane. Nevertheless, I look for meaning. Of course the title itself contains a wealth of meaning for one reading from a Christian worldview. The stories contain mention of the creator and how the despiser came to be in control of “the land.” Sounds familiar doesn’t it?

Yet I’ve been told that Stephen Donaldson is NOT a Christian. His father was a missionary to India, a doctor caring for the lepers. I’m left to ponder the author’s intensions and abundant symbolism within his novels. This is a conundrum, to be sure, because my thinking is that a blog post should be informative, yet I’ve provided you with nothing but questions. Still, these are questions that I’d love to hear answered if anyone has a clue. And I’d love to discuss further your take on these novels.


Why Fantasy? – Part 2

I have thought quite a bit about characters we often find in fantasy literature. It seems that certain categories appear over and over, and I see them more clearly in this genre than in any other. Since fantasy stories are […]
| Aug 30, 2006 | No comments |

I have thought quite a bit about characters we often find in fantasy literature. It seems that certain categories appear over and over, and I see them more clearly in this genre than in any other. Since fantasy stories are often idealistic, readers don’t seem to mind seeing “expected” characters who are “larger-than-life,” because they resonate with their hearts and minds. Yet, at the same time, readers want to see a new twist, an adaptation of the classic character sketches.

I’ll list some of the classic characters I’ve seen, along with why they work so well in Christian-themed fantasy. I’m sure some of you are already familiar with these, but this survey might be helpful for many others.

The Unlikely Hero – Have you noticed how simple, lost, and weak the fantasy protagonist often is at the start of the story? Take Frodo for LOTR, Lucy from Narnia, or Luke Skywalker from Star Wars. They know so little. They have no clue how strong they can be. Yet they are willing to do the impossible. Perhaps it is this naïve, simple faith that allows them to venture out into danger, because if they understood what lay before them, perhaps they wouldn’t dare take a step.

I think all fantasy readers love to cheer for this underdog character. He or she is usually free of severe moral lapses, yet is sorely lacking in knowledge and skills—an easy person to like. There is little arrogance or pretense, just a desire to be and do something better. This parallels our longing for a better world than our own, the heaven that has been promised to the faithful, so the journey of an unsuspecting lamb, into the midst of the wolves, is captivating.

An Established Hero – Of course the unlikely hero needs help, someone who has been through the battles, who knows a lot more, and is ready to fight to the death for the unlikely hero. Aragorn, of course, comes to mind. In Narnia, we find a host of animal helpers, especially the ultimate hero, Aslan. In Star Wars, we have Han Solo. This hero protects and defends, but he usually doesn’t take the final step in the journey, the one that completes the final conflict and resolves the story. That is up to the unlikely hero.

As we travel our own journeys, sometimes feeling inadequate, God seems to supply exactly what we need when we need it, sometimes in the form of a strong helper. When we see that established hero in fantasy, it reminds us that there are helpers out there doing battle for us, perhaps even angels we cannot see. This brings a feeling of comfort and strengthens our resolve.

A Trusted Friend – Where would Frodo be without Sam? Where would Lucy be without Peter or the beavers? Luke without Leia? A trusted friend who comes alongside us is a great comfort, even if he isn’t a great warrior or doesn’t know any more than we do. He’s someone to lean on, to talk to, to provide a laugh in times of trouble. And in fantasy literature, he is loyal to the very end. He doesn’t want the limelight. He just wants the unlikely hero to survive and succeed.

This unselfish, faithful friend is a great reminder of an ideal we all long for. Wouldn’t we all have an easier life with a Sam walking at our sides? My wife is such a friend to me. I wouldn’t be able to make my journey without her. So, seeing this classic fantasy character in a story resonates with me.

A Spiritual Guide – This is the person who guides the unlikely hero using wisdom, philosophy, and an understanding of a higher power. He might use a sword from time to time, but his greatest weapon and shield are found in spiritual guidance. He readily admits that the power is not his own, only that he is a channel. As with the established hero, he won’t be around when the unlikely hero has to take that final step. The step has to be taken using what the hero has already learned from the spiritual guide. Frodo lost the help of Gandalf and had to go on without him. Luke lost Obi-Wan and faced the Death Star with only a whispered voice in his mind.

There comes a time when we have to face our challenges using the wisdom we’ve learned, and no visible person will be around to guide us through each step. This is the face of maturity. Every unlikely hero, including you and I, has to step out of that naïve, simplistic person we once were and prove our maturity. We have the guide for a while, the training wheels on our cosmic bicycle ride, but someday we will have to ride alone, trusting in what we have learned. And perhaps we will become the spiritual guide for another unlikely hero that God brings into our lives.

These characters, of course, aren’t in all fantasy literature, and there are others I’ve seen that I’m not mentioning. We also don’t necessarily see the classic characters personified in individuals. Perhaps they are concepts or inanimate. For example, the spiritual guide could be a book, a prophecy, or a code of conduct. But I’ve seen these characters often enough to realize that they are helpful types for us to consider in our own works, because we love to read about them. We feel the warmth of their presence as we hope for similar characters in our own lives. The key is to create a unique twist that puts your stamp of originality on these types. So, I guess the bottom line is to consider the classic characterization path, but implement it in a unique way.

If you would like to see a video of a workshop I did on this subject, click here, click on Channel 21, then click on “Workshop” in the lower right hand portion.

Next week I will give some examples from readers about how some fantasy characters have affected them. This might help us see the value of this genre in practice.

Bryan Davis

Warning! Wild and Inane Ramblings Ahead

Heard an interesting news bit today.  Apparently Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest has made 960+ MILLION dollars worldwide in box office sales alone! And it has only been out 7.4 weeks. (source) That’s quite a haul. But is […]
| Aug 29, 2006 | No comments |

Heard an interesting news bit today.  Apparently Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest has made 960+ MILLION dollars worldwide in box office sales alone! And it has only been out 7.4 weeks. (source)

That’s quite a haul. But is proof yet again of the desire for the fantastical adventure that is being craved worldwide. (So I guess all of you writing your fantasy pirate tales had best get crackin’)  But then we all knew that already, right?

Becky’s post yesterday brought up some good points. How does one ensure that their readers can separate fantasy from reality? I don’t know that you can for everyone. Some people simply can’t make that leap. But for the rest I think it is just a matter of letting the fantastic be just that.

Don’t couch the outlandish aspects of a world in detailed explanation (unless of course you’re doing hard science). Don’t feel like the world needs to be justified. If you must, tackle these things outside the novel, but never let them seep into it.

The same goes for readers. If you want to truly understand and experience speculative fiction (as I’m sure most of you know) you have to approach the world on the author’s terms. Don’t second guess everything or ask “Do they really believe dragons existed or that there really are aliens?”

I’m probably preaching to the choir here (or am I singing to the conductor), but while we have a responsibility to examine everything we do in light of Scripture, that doesn’t mean that if it isn’t mentioned in Scripture that something is impossible (or evil).

And when dealing with Truth and the revealed nature of God, I believe it is less about specifics and more about the spirit. If that makes sense.

I feel like I’m rambling… so I’m going to cut it off here for this week.  Maybe you can make sense of what I just said and enlighten me to it in the comments.

And be sure to come back next Tuesday as I’ll be featuring an interview with the one and only, Jeff Gerke, author and editor. The man instrumental in founding the Realms imprint and who has recently gone freelance.

Religion In Fantasy: The Pitfalls

In July we discussed religion in Christian fantasy (see Stuart’s post, Lacking Worlds: How a Spiritual Focus Can Hamper Christian Fantasy), but I’d like to revisit the subject. Specifically I’d like to explore a question first posed by Moira Allen […]
| Aug 27, 2006 | No comments |

In July we discussed religion in Christian fantasy (see Stuart’s post, Lacking Worlds: How a Spiritual Focus Can Hamper Christian Fantasy), but I’d like to revisit the subject.

Specifically I’d like to explore a question first posed by Moira Allen to Orson Scott Card in an interview first published on Phantastes in 2000: “What are some of the perils and pitfalls of writing about religion in a fanta`sy setting, and how can they be avoided?”

Part of Card’s answer is applicable to Christian fantasy in particular:

The first is that when you use magic in a story, you have to deal with the people who really believe in magic—i.e., fundamentalist Christians who think witchcraft really exists and that you really can invoke the powers of the devil to do magical things. Naturally, they don’t want fantasies that make “satanism” seem attractive to be part of the reading of the children in our culture, and would, if they could, stamp it out entirely.

In November, I’ll be speaking to a group of teachers on the subject of fantasy. The course title is “Fantasy—From Narnia To Harry Potter—Does It Belong?” And the description of the workshop:

There is no denying that fantasy has captured young people and pulled them into imaginative worlds. Do such stories have any value for Christians? What’s an English teacher to do—add the best fantasies to the reading list or ban them from the classroom?

When I first started gathering my thoughts, I considered joking by standing up, repeating the title, saying “Yes” and sitting down.

But the more I’ve thought about the subject the less clear the answer to the question becomes. After all, as Card points out, “fundamentalist” Christians believe witchcraft really exists and that you can invoke the power of the devil to do magical things. This belief clearly stems from the Bible.

Does that mean inclusion of what the Bible calls evil, necessitates a Biblical treatment of it? a la Harry Potter.

I know, I know—it’s getting a bit tiresome to talk about the books and the objections to them, but they serve the purpose.

In the past, I’ve explained the fantasy elements in Harry Potter as just that—fantasy. There are no brooms that fly, no half-numbered train platforms, and no school with shifting staircases and talking pictures. It is fantasy, meant to be imaginative. Meant to create a world that does communicate something about the real world, but not by advocating the reality of the fantastic.

But what happens when a Christian writes about the fantastic that is real, as if it is indeed real? a la Frank Peretti and This Present Darkness?

Must such a story then be measured by Scripture? Does that move the story out of the realm of fantasy and into the realm of supernatural thriller or supernatural suspense?

In other words, aren’t the two drastically different, one being “speculative” because it creates what is not and means for it to be understood as pretend while the other creates what is and speculates on that existence?

Isn’t the real pitfall, then, in mixing up the two, to the point that readers can no longer distinguish the parameters of the pretend?

“Queen” By Gene Wolfe: Is It CSF? What Can We Learn As Writers?

This is a brief short story, six pages in QPB size. It’s fantasy. It doesn’t name names; it expects the reader to figure out what is happening by the slowly accumulating clues. And it’s not hard to figure out, if […]
| Aug 25, 2006 | No comments |

This is a brief short story, six pages in QPB size. It’s fantasy. It doesn’t name names; it expects the reader to figure out what is happening by the slowly accumulating clues. And it’s not hard to figure out, if you are Christian, especially a Catholic.

I love this small jewel of a story for it feels like a parable, a fairy tale, an instructive fable, a timeless tale, even though it’s g rounded in the historical and actual. It shows what a master writer can do with very few pages of clean prose loaded with allusion and symbolism.

I hope some of you got to read it.


“It was late afternoon when the travelers reached the village.” These two travelers, calm and cryptic, ask directions of the richest man in the village as he is hurrying home. Something about the travelers changes the rich man’s attitude: he slows down, he offers to guide them to the home of the poor old woman they seek. Once at the woman’s humble abode, the rich man insists he has no time to spare, but he lingers, and wants assurance the travelers won’t hurt her. The woman, meantime, seems to remember one of the travelers.

“We have come to take her to the coronation,” one of the travelers says, at which the rich man remembers the poor old woman is a descendent of a royal line.

(You can guess what is going on at this point, yes?)

The rich man can’t seem to extricate himself and offers to fetch food.

The old woman says grace and the prayer becomes a moment of epiphany for the rich man who “had never heard such prayers before,” and moreso, “he had never heard prayer at all. He was like a man who had seen only bad coin all his life, he thought, and after a great many years receives a purse of real silver, fresh from the mint.” A thought which one of the travelers seems to hear and responds to verbally.

As he dines, the rich man learns that the woman’s son was a teacher and that there is a long way for the other three to travel to the coronation. He tries to convince them to stay in the village, rest before leaving, stay for a couple weeks at least and be introduced, because having connections is good. “Too many people think that they can do everything through relatives.”

When they say they are ready to go, the rich man offers to find a donkey and to travel a way with them, because the old woman won’t be able to keep up with the travelers on foot.

The old woman says to one of the travelers, “Weren’t you the one who came to tell me about my son?” He doesn’t look a day older, she says.

The rich man asks if they are relatives of the old woman. They admit to being only messengers. The old woman receives assurance they aren’t messengers of death.

The rich man feels left out, asks if he may go with them. They say not. It’s by invitation only. He shyly asks if he might go just to the edge of the village and is told, “Since we are there now, yes, you may,” and, “You’ll tell others. That’s good. Because you’re rich, they’ll have to listen to you. But some won’t believe you, because you’re dishonest. That should be perfect.”

The rich man denies his dishonesty. Then admits it as he walks on. Then distances himself from the acts: “Those things were dishonest, but not I.”

The travelers and the very old woman begin to ascend air. The old woman says farewell: “Please tell everyone I’ll miss them terribly, and that I’ll come back just as soon as I can.”

At one point in their climb up some invisible path, the travelers offer the old woman a last look at her home village. She turns and says, “It’s precious, and yet it’s not important.” To which one traverler says, “It used to be important.”

The old woman laughs “a girl’s laugh” and feels strong enough to run and the travelers say they can’t promise to run as fast as she is able. When she says she wants not to be late to the coronation. They assure her she won’t be. It won’t start without her.

When the rich man’s servant arrives, only three stars are visible where the rich man’s gaze is fixed. They return to the old woman’s house, and the rich man vows to take care of it “while she’s away.” He plans to repair it and keep the trust, and “he was filled with a satisfaction near to love at being thus trusted.”


Is it CSF?

I chose this as it seemed to be a nice pairing with the other short tale I previously discussed, “The Traveler and the Tale.” Here, again, is a Marian story. Here again, the idea of story and of witness matters. “You’ll tell others,” the traveler (obviously an angel) says to the rich man.

In both tales, a meeting with Mary changes the observer for the good. But whereas Yolens’ sci-fi story is skeptical of Mary (and God), this fantasy story is one drenched in respect of and faith in Mary’s special status as Mother to the Son of God.

Surely you realized what was going on. The poor old woman is Mary, the travelers are two angels, one of whom is Gabriel, the one who “told me about my son?” The village is not named, but we can assume is one in the M.E.. Nazareth? (Tradition, I believe, ascribes Mary’s last residence in Ephesus, which was not a village, but an important and lovely city. So, Wolfe sets this elsewhere, a liberty allowed in fantasy.) And the event portrayed is the Assumption (a Catholic belief, though not one widely accepted in Protestant circles.) The coronation is not Christ’s, but hers. She is the Queen of the title.

Would a non-Christian unfamiliar with matters of Christian history and belief get these things. Probably not. Maybe not. But the story would still work as one of a miraculous event and a man changed by it. It would not be as meaningful, but it would still be a fable with its own charm.

And given that it includes a view that refers to things Biblical (including doctrinal stuff of angels and messengers, Mary as a descendant of a king, ie David) and it has a respectful tone of heavenly matters, and that it shows prayer as powerful, and that it alludes to things our Lord taught—something that one gleans reading the actual story, and not my overview—I say this is Christian fantasy. It’s more specifically Catholic fantasy (and perhaps the Orthodox churches accept some of these matters about Mary, but I can’t speak with confidence on that.)

What Can We Learn As Writers and Readers?

  1. You don’t have to babble on to tell an effective story of “magic” and personal transformation. Bit by bit, over a mere six pages, we see the evolution of a rich man from self-centered to other-centered. From worldly-obsessed, to other-worldly initiated. It’s in small clues sprinkled along in narrative and dialogue that we visualize the effect of woman and angels on this rich man.
  2. Feel free to take extra-biblical religious tales and transform them into fantasy or science fiction. Taking these liberties doesn’t mean you must be skeptical or disrespectful to history or doctrine.
  3. Working with the familiar does not require we be clichéd and beat people over the head with the obvious: At no point in “Queen” did these angels say, “Behold, we come from God to take you home.” At no point did Mary repeat parts of the Magnificat to identify herself. She didn’t have to say Jesus, my son, or Joseph, my late husband. She was simply and old woman who lived alone and missed her son and who wanted a bite to eat before leaving for a great event. She even feared death a bit, a very human thing. The elegant submissiveness of the angels to her desires was neither obnoxious nor overt. It was gentle and quiet, just like the story. The tone was never violated. Discretion can speaks volumes.
  4. Trust your readers to get your clues: While some readers won’t get it, and you always have to live with that, any with a normal dose of Western cultural knowledge will. And a dose of mystery is never a bad thing. Everything doesn’t have to be spelled out. Maybe not all the subtle clues to parables and things biblical will be understood, but enough is there to heljp you enjoy the tale.
  5. Rising action is still a great technique: It’s a classic story element taught in schools for ages, and it still works. In this story, we see the growing engagement of the rich man and the growing disengagement of the three who are to leave, and that provides tension and leads upwards to the climax. It’s a lovely feeling, even when it’s this discreet. No one gets shot. No one yells. So, the miraculous stands out amidst the mundane and hushed events of one night.
  6. Know your symbolic toolbox as a Christian writer and reader: I challenge you to go through these six pages of story and find everything that refers to things biblical, allusions that build and build and build the holy infrastructure of this story. “Queen” reminded me a bit in this regard of T. S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi,” especially that middle stanza that is loaded with imagery that speaks prophetically forward for what is to come for the child the Magi come to honor: vine leaves, empty wineskins, running stream, darkness, etc. In “Queen,” the allusions look not forward, but back—as old people often do upon their lives.

    Examples: 1. The two travelers looking for a roof for the night correlates to the journey to Bethlehem of Mary and Joseph. 2. The “rich man”, unnamed, is a figure of Christ’s parables. 3. The lamb that the rich man suggests the travelers buy and take to the poor woman is a reference to her son, the Lamb of God. 4. The two travelers carry no staffs, and the rich man thought it odd they had no staffs to defend their lives. Remember Jesus telling his disciples to go into cities with no staff, to go in pairs?

    Those four examples of the allusive gold mine of this story are all in the partial first page of the story. Just 3/4ths of one page. Every single page is loaded this way. The old widow woman who has a little “oil” and “flour.” What does that remind you of?

    This is the kind of tale that is richer as an experience the better you know your Word.

  7. Have someone and/or something genuinely change: Another couple of classic story element that work together in this brief tale are character epiphany and change. The rich man is transformed emotionally and spiritually. The old woman has changed in location and status. Even her parting words suggest the village itself is changed. That’s a lot of change in six pages, but it’s done with such skill that the story doesn’t feel packed. It unfolds at just the right pace.
  8. Don’t be afraid of “was”: This seems like a silly thing to include, huh? But I’ve seen folks critique others’ writing (and I have done it myself in the past) for starting a story with a “was” sentence construction and for using it as the story rolls. One thing I’ve learned through reading widely is that many of our best and most lauded writers are not afraid of was. Maybe as beginners we should watch for it to make sure we’re not being lazy craftsmen. But do not fear it. It’s a legitimate word. In a story that has a “fable” or “parable” taste to it, “was” is particularly appropriate: Once upon a time there WAS… This is a classic English story set-up. Go read some novel starts by C.S. Lewis and others. See how they do not fear “was.” And be not afraid ye either.

What do you think? Am I on target? Are these helpful hints actually helpful? Can any of these be applied to your story?

As a reader, do you think this story would move you, satisfy you?

Next Week: Another story comes under the Mircroscope, either the multiple-award winning novelette “Hell is the Absence of God” by Ted Chiang or the short story “Bed and Breakfast” by Gene Wolfe. Please try to hunt down the stories and read them. It makes for a much more robust discussion, no?