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Three Reasons You Should Write Secular Fiction

Note: This is a slightly-edited excerpt from a very fine post by last week’s guest contributor, Mike Mikalatos, entitled, “Five Reasons You Should Write Contemporary Fiction.”
| Aug 9, 2011 | No comments |

Note: This is a slightly-edited excerpt from a very fine post by last week’s guest contributor, Mike Mikalatos, entitled, “Five Reasons You Should Write Contemporary Fiction.” It occurred to me that with a few minor adjustments, Mike’s suggestions could be addressed more broadly to writers of Christian fiction, encouraging them to improve their writing by venturing into secular venues from time to time. I’ve listed only three points because by then you’ll have the idea and will be able to complete the exercise yourself, if you wish. Trying to spin humor from Mike’s work is like spreading peanut butter on peanut butter, but fortunately, this was one of his more serious pieces. Do read the original.

I love speculative Christian fiction. The first movie I remember seeing (at about age three or four) was the movie Them Ben Hur. I had a Darth Vader Charlton Heston poster looming over my bed, and glow-in-the-dark vampire teeth a miniature chariot on my bedside table. The first short story I ever wrote (in high school 4th grade) was about a guy who invented time travel went to New Guinea as a missionary, but neglected to take into account the movement of the Earth in his calculations culture of cannibalism, and found himself floating in Earth orbit a stew pot when he (successfully) tested his time machine went looking for a lost tribe all by himself. For some reason unclear to me today, he had an Irish a Canadian accent, I suppose in an attempt to make him interesting.

However, my favorite writing professor in college, Percival Everett Everett Percival, refused to let us turn in speculative Christian fiction for our assignments. No fantasy angels. No science fiction Last Days persecutions. No slipstream spiritual warfare or cyberpunk demonic possession or alternate histories sanctified historical romances. Contemporary Secular fiction or nothing. I remember one of my classmates defying him and turning in a fantasy an angel story. He returned it to her and said, “No dragons halos, harps, or flaming swords.” (As I recall her next story was set in modern day on Earth but had a girl with a dragon an angel tattoo … I bet she wishes she had run flown with that now!) I gave him a vampire missionary story once and he called me into his office, stood up, and let it slip from his hands into the waste basket stew pot waste basket.

I was surprised to discover one day, reading some of my professor’s published stories, that he occasionally wrote speculative Christian fiction. I confronted him (of course! Because I was in college! And I needed more drama in my life to confirm his orthodoxy!), and he laughed at me and said something to the effect of, “So?” He went on to explain to me that I needed to be able to write “real life” secular fiction before I would be able to write convincing speculative Christian fiction. The more I thought about it, and the more I practiced it, I realized he was right. So, here are five three ways that writing contemporary secular fiction will strengthen your speculative Christian fiction:

1) It will make your stories more compelling.

It’s easy in speculative Christian fiction to distract people with the special effects. If you have a mutated alligator demon chasing your hero through a museum an abandoned church, it’s simple to keep people turning the pages. Whole novels can be written with stock characters who have no reflection in real life. You can get away with it. In fact, people the choir may applaud you for the great “spiritually-uplifting” ride. And if you’re able to pull that off in your fiction, it’s no mean feat great accomplishment. But if you can take that same ability and also bring in meaningful, moving character moments that cause your readers to reflect on their lives and the world around them, you’ve taken it up a notch and people are going to remember your work as more than a getaway from a fifty-foot lizard demon.

2) It will keep you from cheating.

When you’re writing speculative Christian fiction and someone asks you a question about a character’s motivation, it’s tempting to say, “Well, that’s just the way things are done in Faerie Land Christians are.” Yeah, but why are the faeries Christians stealing children from the humans reciting Bible verses instead of hiding behind rocks when the One World Government soldiers shoot at them? “Oh, that’s just something they do.” And what do they do with the children happens when they get shot? “Um. I don’t know. Hide them away where they never grow old the status of nominal Christians during the Tribulation is problematical.” And this is because? “Faeries are capricious Bible scholars disagree on this issue.”

That’s cheating. Any time you say, “That’s the way aliens think Christians are,” or “It’s different in the future Tribulation,” you’re cheating your reader. We don’t want mysterious, unknowable motivations. They can be alien Christian motivations. They can be strange moral motivations. They can even be hidden motivations. But at some point you have to reveal why the Morlocks One World soldiers are serving the Eloi shooting the Christians, and why the Eloi sleep inside Christians stand around in plain sight and get shot.

Imagine, now, that you were writing literary secular fiction and in your story you had a group of people who went around stealing babies. There’s no way you could get away with saying, “Well, that’s just what this group of people does” because we all know that people don’t do something horrible like that for no reason. “Real life” Secular fiction shows the holes more readily when an author is being lazy or cheating on character motivation relying on Christian cultural assumptions, and learning to shore up those holes will help you in your character development and your world building communicate credibly with people outside the Christian community.

3) It will keep your reader better engaged in the story.

Let’s be honest, even books that are basically showcasing some world-building (Dune Narnia comes to mind) are, at the core of it, about the people. Dune Narnia without Paul Maud’dib the Pevensies would be a lousy story. The Lord of the Rings trilogy is essentially an epic filled with stock characters from epics with really two three exceptions … the hobbits and Gollum and Tom Bombadil. Many of the memorable scenes of the books, of course, come from those characters.

Now, it’s pretty easy to keep people entertained with stories allegorical fantasies about messiahs and furry animals saving the world. But what if you could do the same thing with a story about a man and a woman watching a television show together and wondering, without ever saying it, whether their marriage was going to work out or if it might be over? If you can hold attention with that story, I guarantee your next speculative Christian story will be better. Because that same couple will realize, of course, that their strange infant is actually a changeling left by the faeries autistic, and when they journey into Faerie to save seek God’s help for their daughter in prayer, they’ll also be discovering whether their marriage will survive. The reader will have a lot more to hold on to and to care about.

3a. The people who need Christian fiction the most aren’t hanging out at Christian bookstores.

3b. You may find you write better Christian fiction when you stop trying to write Christian fiction.

Apologies, Mike, for mangling stealing plagiarizing exploiting re-imagining your article. I’m a lousy, good-for-nothing, lazy hack great admirer of your work.

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Sally
Guest

I write Christian and secular (or mainstream) fiction. I use 2 different pen names so as not to offend anyone either way. In some ways my mainstream novels are more spiritual. Because the characters are not Christians and don’t always make great choices, chaos and conflict ensues, which is the life blood of a story.
 
Every Sunday I sit in church writing tons of notes that are primarily meant for my characters. LOL Every so often I think I should probably mull over the spiritual insight for my own benefit, but it’s been a blast helping my characters along under the radar, so to speak. 
 
It’s definitely tougher to write this way I can’t use Christianese, I can’t use concepts that are foreign outside of the church, but I can draw on popular culture that glimpses Christian themes and wind them into my stories for something that tends to be a bit deeper than my Christian novels.
 
It bothers me that it’s that way. And I do try to avoid Christianese and overly-simple themes and Deus ex Machina in my Christian novels, too, but I’m writing to an audience with certain expectations. In my mainstream fiction, I’m writing to an audience who only wants a good story, and that somehow that makes me freer to be creative and go deeper into motivation.
One of these days–especially in this age of indie publishing–I should man up (or lady up, in my case) and write that messy, difficult Christian novel without worrying about reader expectations.

Chila Woychik
Guest

Of course you know I totally agree with this, Fred, hence our TEAM PYP initiative, our foray into writing short stories for the secular market.  Glad others are speaking up about the necessity of ratcheting up our writing to contend with the best, whether one is a Christian or not.
Blessings,
~Chila

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

On this one, I can definitely see two sides of this.

First, because the world itself — even under the corruption of sin — is in fact a Christian world, destined to be physically redeemed into the New Heavens and New Earth (Rev. 21), a Christian writer need not be constrained to believing he must write only about Faith Crises or specific religious themes/elements in order to write a Christian story.

To think otherwise is Gnosticism, and ignores the Biblical doctrine of vocation. The Spirit has given people various gifts to glorify Him, inside the Church and outside it, and the lists in Paul’s epistles are very likely not exhaustive or limited to “churchy” gifts.

Also, because God also gifts non-Christians with talents, and even evil people know how to do good things (even with wrong motives), we’d do well to learn from their greatness.

Second, however, I already see plenty of authors addressing “common grace”-style echoes of truth in the general markets. If even the (presumably) non-Christian makers of the films Thor and Captain America, for example, can accidentally echo themes of true heroism and sacrifice and true love and respect for men and women, why should Christians feel they need to join that particular cultural chorus?

Could we not instead say, “well, thank God that’s taken care of,” then instead in our stories explore and emphasize the particular grace truths of the Gospel? So far, such truths are getting ignored in both secular storytelling and Christian fiction, leaving a vacuum, a need. And it’s not only non-Christians, but Christians, who have that need.

The warm-up acts before the main event are already underway, the positions nearly filled; now the true Star of the Great Story should be proclaimed with the best God-honoring and -gifted creativity we can give in our stories.

I wouldn’t at all suggest that Christian writers/artists joining the “common grace” echoing of old truths in new ways, in specifically secular venues, are wrong or sinning in some way. That would be an overcorrection. Yet I do see more people talking about, say, storming the secular presses, without reminders that people inside the Church also need good fiction, and Scriptural, specific-revelation Gospel echoes in excellent stories.

We do need authors in all these fields, not flocking into primarily one or the other.

Steve Rzasa
Guest

Funny … I can’t help but wonder if “secular” writers sit around talking about whether they should try writing religious/Christian fiction. Oh wait — they don’t need to, because Christians already read secular work 🙂

Galadriel
Guest

While a story may not have explict Christianity, the author’s beliefs will come through in some way. What exactly is ‘secular?’ in this context…

Sally
Guest

What I mean by secular is that my mainstream characters don’t go to church, kneel to pray, avoid labor on Sunday or do the things the culture at large expects of Christians.

Of course everything is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, but for purposes of this discussion there is a difference in writing. The Christian Booksellers Assoc. (it’s called something else now, IRCC?) does not allow certain themes in books. Some readers want a clean, unoffensive story. That’s fine. It’s a niche in the market. It’s this segment I refer to as ‘Christian’.

I’m a Christian so Christian-reflective themes appear in my writing. But some of my books would not be allowed under the CBA umbrella because of certain themes.

I see it as the old argument of whether Christians should be involved in the culture. Do we try to change the culture through the arts or avoid the culture to avoid its corruption? I still can’t answer the question, but I *must* write and God gave me my imagination, and so I write what I write.

Julius
Guest

First- This post was awesome. I chuckled greatly. 🙂

But more seriously, it weirded me out that I couldn’t figure out where secular and Christian fiction exactly end. I’m kinda with Galadriel. (I’ve always wanted to say something like that in actual conversation.) Characters are a reflection of their author as we are a reflection of our maker. Even the villain reflects the author- it reflects what he thinks is bad, right?

So, can we really write truly secular fiction? (I’m not arguing we can’t exactly, it just was a weird train of thought for me today. I wanted to see what you could offer.) As in, what exactly makes a fiction woven by a Christian become not Christian? At what point does it leave that frame of being and assume another shape?

I have a stroy involving (of all things) werewolves, post-apoplyptica goodness, and lots of sadness. No one, as of now, is a Christian. None of them mention pray, except in the form of a desperate plea to they know not what, and I don’t dwell upon it. God arrives in their speech once, really, and it’s a short but serious conversation. But the whole thing is about Redemption. My main character does bad things; he hurts people without meaning to, and relationships are strained. He tries to be good and fails miserably, and he does things I consider to be immoral. But through him, I plan Redemption for a world.

So is it Christian?

Thanks for the thought-grenade. I’m still feeling the shell-shock. 😀

Nissa Annakindt
Guest

Most secular fiction that I read is actually religious fiction for the atheist or secularist faiths…..
But I believe that much that is written with the intent of being published by the major Christian publishers is weak, made bland by an author trying to conform to the marketplace.  The hero must be a Christian, the Christianity must be a generic Evangelical Christianity for the sake of those very few readers who would faint if they read of an infant’s baptism if their own denomination doesn’t practice that.
Most Christian readers read plenty from the secular publishers. If we can read books that take the point-of-view that all Christians are ignorant bigoted people, we certainly can take a little explicit Missouri Synod Lutheranism without blushing.  I’m a Catholic, and yet I enjoy works by authors across the Protestant/Evangelical spectrum and even LDS (Mormon) authors, without it damaging my Catholic faith.
In the past I wrote quite a bit aimed at secular publishers (not very successfully) and I think that’s a good experience for any writer perfecting his craft. But it seems to me that secular publishers these days are far less accepting of anything a Christian author might write. Christian characters are introduced only to play the role of homophobic hater-villains with weak minds. C. S. Lewis would have been asked to introduce a nice Wiccan into Narnia to balance out the bad witch— and lose the Lion.
I think we as Christian writers need to move beyond the major-Christian-publisher taboos and the major-secular-publisher taboos. We need to write from our own perspectives even if it’s Moravian or Mennonite or Carmelite spirituality (it’s a Catholic thing). We also need to write as if our readers don’t share every detail of our spiritual background— perhaps learn more about what other types of Christians believe so we don’t unintentionally confuse our readers.

Chila Woychik
Guest

VERY well said, Nissa.  My intend exactly with Port Yonder Press and our “Christian” imprints.  And our “General Market” boos will be from, well, whomever can write the very best stories geared to a general market – whether the author is Christian or not. 
Kudos for presenting the clearest thinking I’ve heard for awhile on the topic.
 
 

Julius
Guest

@Fred Warren I guess I never considered that we talk more about secular works here. I guess I never questioned it because I assumed it’s because among people who read Christian Speculative fiction, there juat aren’t as many common core books that fit into everyone’s canon. Like, if I was talking to a fellow writer of fantasy, we would both probably have Tolkien, Jacques, Robert Jordan, or Rowling  in common, and our assumptions and ideas and goals as writers would be colored by how we approach him and others that are all big names.

There’s not as many big names to congregate around and say “We all know these books and they lie at our core.”

But that’s just me. 😀

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Steven: I certainly wouldn’t deny that it’s appropriate for Christian writers to continue writing for Christian audiences as well. However, I think we do those readers a disservice if we slack on literary merit because we’re mostly worried about checking somebody’s arbitrary box for spiritual correctness.

Amen (except for the “Steven” part, though admittedly two Steves commented here).

I would add, though — and may suggest further in coming weeks — that much of what has made Christian fiction so poor have been overbearing, ill-informed, and Gospel-minimizing attempts to cater to the all-important Non-Christian Reader. That’s a result of bad teaching, not at all limited to novels. That bad teaching has said, among other things, that a) You’re not really glorifying God unless you do direct evangelism; b) the best way to do direct evangelism is the Altar Call; c) do whatever it takes, including dumbing down the message just a little bit, in order to get people to Make a Decision.

(The name “Charles Finney” belongs somewhere in the preceding paragraph.)

As Steve observed, most people on either side of the fence aren’t looking to Christian fiction for well-written, challenging literature, or even entertaining stories. Let’s face it, here at Spec Faith, we spend more time and energy discussing Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and Firefly than any contemporary Christian spec-fic.

Interesting point. I’ve given it some thought, and three reasons may exist for that:

1. A lot of Spec-Faith’s emphasis (even in our faith statement) is that God’s truth, in a “general” way (cf. Romans 1), is known in both His physical creation and in stories written by non-Christians who may not even know they incidentally echoed His truth. That’s important for Christians to understand, less we minimize God’s sovereignty, the destiny of His creation to be refurbished and redeemed, and miss out on good stories.

2. Very many of current Christian spec-fic authors have either been featured here and/or are reading and/or have commented. Maybe it’s just me, but that makes me a bit reluctant — though I know I shouldn’t be — to be honest about how I felt about their work. Also, lots of us want to Get Published. Who wants to fault potential colleagues?

3. Again, some, not all, of even Christian visionary fiction is “preachy” not in the good way but in the way that denotes falling all over one’s self to try to appeal to a Secular Audience. Frankly, that usually makes the fiction boring to believers. Been there, done that. Time to zone out. Not for me. I can sit through the Altar Call and not do a thing (that is, unless the preacher sees that no hands are raised and therefore performs a sudden switch to asking instead for “recommitments” to Jesus). See what I mean?

Kaci Hill
Member

3a. The people who need Christian fiction the most aren’t hanging out at Christian bookstores.


This is probably the big thing for me. I’ve already admitted to being on the light-weight end as far as “secular fiction” goes, but I really, really see the point.  To me, what  good portion of the dialogue on CBA/ABA boils down to is whether or not their target is “in-reach” oriented or “out-reach” oriented.
It’s a bit like setting up a discipleship retreat for the youth group, then telling them to bring all their non-Christian friends.  That’s a severely mixed message: Is this a local missions (outreach) event, or is it intended to minister to the Body (inreach)?
My drive-by understanding is that I hear people saying they want a kind of novelized gospel to give their non-Christian friends, then stick these very, very church brat-centered novels (which may well be very well written parable style novels) into bookstores only Christians are going to step into.  I’m sorry, but without good reason, I’m not going to step into a Muslim, New Age, Jewish, or Hindu bookstore (assuming they have them). Nor do I expect to find them in a Christian one. (The exception was the day I helped a converted American Muslim woman buy a Bible for her Christian son.) 
In the end, the whole mess appears to be part of the bigger question of where Christians fit in all of this (as others have said). 

 
Julius – So, can we really write truly secular fiction? (I’m not arguing we can’t exactly, it just was a weird train of thought for me today. I wanted to see what you could offer.) As in, what exactly makes a fiction woven by a Christian become not Christian? At what point does it leave that frame of being and assume another shape?

I dunno. Sins of the Son was an attempt on my part to write something completely void of anything “Christian.” It surpassed everything I’d written prior in Christian themes, with me actively working against that.
Here’s a thing that makes me wonder, though:  A friend loaned me a set of vampire books awhile back. It starts in India and covers about 5000 years (it doesn’t feel like it, though).  I really don’t know anything about the author, much less his religion, but I could easily call them very Hindu fiction. The characters are Hindu (at least, they’re born that) and a good portion of plot and character development hinges on those beliefs.



Mollie Lyon
Guest

I feel I’m in good company. My novel, Summer Triangle, is somewhat banned by my church, or at least it has to be reviewed before it can be recommended for the book club. As if the ladies have to be protected. The associate pastor’s wife read it. She was surprised at what I wrote.

I laugh, now, because another strong Christian woman helped me edit it. She loved it and let her junior high daughter read it. But hurt and anger filled me when I first heard about the “review” indirectly. The theme is Christian as I am Christian. It is a story of love for God, family and life. My main character has to stand for all that.

I do not want to write for the Christian ghetto. The stories where at the end everyone becomes Christian, even the chicken in the pot. Since I self published this book, it is hard to “brand.” The local library set in the category, “Inspirational Fiction.”

My next novel will be published under West Bow Press. It doesn’t have a rape scene, so I think my fellow Christians will like it. I try in all to show Christianity is not religion, but relationship with Jesus. I strive to be real in showing people of faith, some strong, some weak and unfortunately not all win.

 

 

Patricia
Guest

It’s risky to write edgy themes, especially when established as a Christian novelist. I started putting out edgier themes, risky characters from my 8th novel on. I’ve continued to do so and now I get only a few complaints. But I decided that I couldn’t write about a sanitized world all tied up in a bow. My life wasn’t perfect and it continues to be my hope that readers will connect better with characters whose lives are impossible to believe. I’ve published 18 novels for major publishers.

Patricia
Guest

It’s risky to write edgy themes, especially when established as a Christian novelist. I started putting out edgier themes, risky characters from my 8th novel on. I’ve continued to do so and now I get only a few complaints. But I decided that I couldn’t write about a sanitized world all tied up in a bow. My life wasn’t perfect and it continues to be my hope that readers will connect better with characters whose lives are not impossible to believe. I’ve published 18 novels for major publishers.