Agent and writing instructor Donald Maass has a new book out entitled Writing 21st Century Fiction: High impact techniques for exceptional storytelling. He isn’t dealing specifically with Christian speculative fiction, certainly, but what he says about stories at large ought to matter to those who of us who write it.
First we need to decide if we do, in fact, aim to write “high impact fiction.” Maass describes this type of fiction:
Commercial fiction is thought to be candy for the masses, but the truth is that the masses are responding in huge numbers to something else entirely.
And what is that? That is the subject of this book. High impact comes from a combination of two factors: great stories and beautiful writing. High-impact novels utilize what is best about literary and commercial fiction. They embrace a dichotomy. They do everything well and as a result sell astoundingly. The publishing industry has a convenient term for these wonder books: literary/commercial fiction.
Great stories and beautiful writing. What more can a Christian author aim for? Why wouldn’t we want to write high-impact fiction?
But if Maass is right, high-impact fiction sells. In fact, this is the kind of writing that editors and readers in the 21st century are looking for. And buying.
What does that say about Christian speculative fiction? Could it be that our stories are too thin or unoriginal? That our writing is too colorless or pedantic?
We rarely talk about this aspect of our genre, but I wonder if we aren’t doing ourselves a great disservice to avoid the topic. Rather, it seems to me as if too many of us are walking around with a (varied-sized) chip on our shoulders, looking for someone to blame for the lack of publishing opportunities and/or sales of the books we write.
My real question is this, can great writing and compelling stories really be marginalized?
Ever since 2006 when Stuart Stockton and the rest of us original founders of Spec Faith started this endeavor, I believed that the primary need for the Christian science fiction and fantasy genres was promotion. If readers only knew about Karen Hancock’s books, for example, they’d eagerly buy them. And once they did, publishers would be only too happy to put out more of like kind.
What I discovered in the ensuing years has me wondering if I’ve missed something important. Too many writers seem weighed down by chips on their shoulders, saying in any number of ways that editors, awards organizations, blog tours, and writing organizations all discriminate against our genre.
The solution, rather than promoting one another, encouraging one another, working in concert to bring about the changes that could really make a difference, has seemed to be to alienate others and fragment further.
If, as some claim, writing Christian speculative fiction is trying to fit the square peg of speculative stories into the round hole of the niche evangelical Christian community, then breaking down that community into a smaller niche seems counterintuitive. Unless, of course, we are content to write only for a small, closed set of people.
If we are content to do so, then we should shake off the shoulder chip and admit we have made the choice to write for a specialized group.
If instead we are aiming to write high impact fiction, then I think we should put our energies into (a) learning how to write compelling stories with beautiful prose and (b) supporting others who have made the attempt to do the same thing.
In either case, I don’t see how keeping a chip on our shoulders helps further our aims or the aims of others who write something similar. We might all benefit by checking our shoulders to see if we’re carrying a chip without realizing it. Who needs the extra baggage.