f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 02/01/2004 - 03/01/2004

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Friday, February 27, 2004

You and I—First and Second-Person Point-of-View (Part 2 of series)

(Continue on to Parts 3-7 of our discussion of point-of-view.)

Most, if not all, of you have read To Kill a Mockingbird. (And if you’re wondering why I’ve been mentioning it so often lately, it’s ubiquitousness and broad familiarity are a big part of the reason.) You’ve picked up the book and started and in your mind you “hear” Scout talking to you. Or at least I do.

Maybe some readers simply read books in their own voice, but for me, through some combination of syntax, vocabulary, characterization, and character description, words on a page turn into silent sound. That’s why point-of-view becomes so crucial, because it’s the choice of what “voice” an author wants the bulk of the narrative essence of her story to be told. The choices breakdown as follows.

Second Person - Like stories told in future tense, second hand narratives are rare and usually experimental. We don’t need to dwell on this one. This tends to be a worthwhile POV for essays or journal entries. You agree I’m sure.

First Person – “I” stories. Great Gatsby. Huck Finn. Mockingbird. An example of a multi-narrator first-person account is Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. And the ultimate first-person book—Dickens’ David Copperfield, which begins in a chapter called “I am born” with the following, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show. To begin my life with the beginning of my life, I record that I was born (as I have been informed and believe) on a Friday, at twelve o’clock at night.” (A right-to-life activist might have an interesting time beginning a novel with “I am conceived.”)

Anyhoo, there’s three main reasons to choose first-person narration. One, you have a wonderfully vibrant character who nearly bounds off the page and want to almost introduce a reader to them as a friend. Huck Finn is a bit like this.

Second, you have a larger-than-life character or event and need a “witness” to tell us what happens. Gatsby was always my archetype for this kind of book as Nick Carraway plays the everyman drawn into the Eden/Gomorrah that is East Egg and Gatsby’s life. A more recent reading showed me that Carraway passes a lot more judgment on the events than I remembered. He’s no silent patsy. Another example is Hemingway’s Sun Also Rises which uses Jake Barnes as a tour guide for a romp through France and Spain.

A final reason (and there may well be others) is to toy with the bond between reader and writer by offering an unreliable narrator. Usually you assume what you read in a novel is “true.” But what if you are being told a first-person story by a liar? One book that springs to mind that uses this and the vibrant character together is Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Holden Caufield, though idealized my millions of teens and at least a few assassins over the years, is not a stable or trustworthy narrator. In fact, Caufield is so troubled that this “novel” is actually a rant being given at a psychiatrists office to a silent and invisible counselor. (This is a nice link that examines the narrative of Catcher and has a lot of academic terms I should probably us to make this little piffle more official.)

(A second example of the unreliable narrator is Scout herself in Mockingbird. While truthful, for the most part, it is her youth and innocence that offer a different prism through which we see the story. The hate and anger and awfulness of her world is muted, not in an effort to downplay it, but because, as a child, she can't help but be filled with joy and life. It's poignant and uses understatement to powerful effect. Seriously, if you haven't read this book, do so NOW!)

Yesterday I made the claim that technically, every first-person account was told in the present tense. In the same way, every first-person story is “unreliable.” We in the Christian community have a penchant for being, depending on your mind on such things, either trustworthy or gullible. (i.e., are we courted to early showings of a certain controversial film because of its relevance to our faith or because of our multi-million-dollar market potentiality?) Thus, in most Christian novels, it never even occurs to us that the narrator may be lying. Most aren’t. But nearly all have their own agenda. Ever read a book that has only good guys and bad guys? Why is that? Often, it’s because the bad guys aren’t given a chance to tell their side of the story.

First-person narration offers a great opportunity to mess with readers’ minds. I’m not saying that you should change what you’re writing to do such a thing, but neither should you forget the power is there at your command. If you’re writing a first-person novel, during your reading of your first draft, think about places where your narrator may be hiding information. There’s a tendency to hint at information and then withhold an answer for the sake of suspense, but that needs to be part of your character’s decision, rather than the author’s imposing will.

Finally, one final thing about multi-first-person narration—all your characters must sound entirely different. It’s a very difficult task and one that requires a lot of editing and refining. It’s possible of course (I think the Poisonwood Bible is told this way?), but tends to be the work of an established and talented writer. If you’re starting out, you may want to give yourself a break and choose an easier path.

Next week we’re going to break tradition by not looking at a novel, but by continuing on with this discussion of point of view instead.

Thursday, February 26, 2004

Who Said What and When?—No, Not a Bad Laurel and Hardy Skit, POV and Tense (Part 1 of series)

I’ve done some writing in my life—short stories, longer stories, poetry I wouldn’t show you on a dare, and two novels. My reading and editing spans my lifetime and includes books of pretty much as wide a variety as you can imagine. I don’t know if that completely qualifies me to tackle these issues, but those three points plus my work here and my sheepskin in English from Penn State are all the credentials I’ve got. They don’t hand out badges unfortunately that say “writer” on them. (Or if they do, I’ve not been given one and thus you should ignore me.)

Anyway, in my experience both in reading and writing, a book generally starts with its first letter, first word, first sentence, first paragraph, and first page. Moby Dick begins, “Call….” Elizabeth Gouge’s Green Dolphin Street, a book I’ve not read, starts, “Sophie….” Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: “Last….” Here’s a game from Cornell University you can play with novel’s first lines.

The point of this isn’t to be obscure. It’s merely to point out that the book has to start someplace. Often the first words you read, aren’t the first words ever written by an author. That’s irrelevant. They’re the first words that made it to the published page and therefore they mean everything.

Take Melville’s tutorial on skinning a whale and/or classic American novel: “Call me Ishmael.”

Right, three words…and you pretty much get POV (first-person) and tense (present –sort of*) right off the bat. Now that’s not a requirement in writing, but it shows you how foundational these two principles are to a novel.

For my own writing, I’ve never had any worries with tense, but point of view has been a bear. I don’t have stereotypical point-of-view problems of switching from first person to third or relaying information that couldn’t be known from my POV. My problem is deciding from which perspective to tell a story. To me, that’s everything in a book and if you lead in the wrong perspective you’re going to create problems or head down dead-ends and generally drive yourself mad. I know; I’ve done it.

Before getting to point-of-view, two quick word about tenses.

Past. Present.

Those are pretty much your options. Stylists dally about on occasion with future tense, but I never seen nor can I fathom a novel written that way. Past tense is the most common and allows for the greatest amount of flexibility. Pure present tense is seen less often and offers an immediacy that, coupled with the intimacy of first-person, either works well or is off-putting. Commonly, books in the present tense shuttle back and forth. The greater amount of time you spend in the present, the more immediacy you gain.

An example. Do you remember for instance that To Kill a Mockingbird is a present-tense novel. Here’s proof from Scout’s mouth (speaking as a grown woman thinking back to the events). “I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that.” I think there may be one or two more present-tense lines in the book. The rest is memory.

Now for P.O.V…. Actually, looking at the clock and thinking of what I want to say on this topic, I’m going to hold up. We’ll get to it tomorrow. Anyway, you know the basics—first person, third person limited, third person omniscient, and, for you maniacs, second person.

*First person books are always told from the present perspective. Even a first-person book told in past tense… “At age five, my parents moved to Uruguay and left me with Uncle Pete”…are told from wherever the first person narrator is “standing” at the moment of telling the story. In other words the narrator is no longer five and being left by his parents. This may seem unimportant or like splitting hairs, but trust me, deciding “where” that narrator is in present-time is crucial to the overall tone of the book. You can’t simply ignore it.

Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Craft: It’s Not Just About Glue Pots and Popsicle Sticks Anymore

The best way to understand how something works is to build it with your own hands. Minus that, deconstruction is a good second option. Taking anything apart, bit by bit, offers fairly good lessons, if in reverse, of the nuts and bolts, the ghost in the machine. Millions of corpses have proven it in science and anatomy and in nearly any field, there’s an analysis that works backward, breaking things into bits and studying the parts. That’s what we’re going to do here over the next few entries.

I’m not sure how long it’ll take. I’m not sure if it’ll be uninterrupted, but I think it’s important to start the process. What you take from these entries is a completely different question. If you’re a professional writer or a talented amateur, they may be stuff you already know, if only intuitively. If you teach writing, we will be covering ground you probably are more of an expert on than I. If you’re a beginning writer, though, or without formal training, these will hopefully be of help.

Our model for this exercise is going to be Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. A comic book about writing and reading comic books, it has the distinct advantage of being able to construct and deconstruct its form all at the same time. (Visit here for a small example of his efforts.) We’re not going to be in McCloud’s book much because I doubt most of you can refer to it and it’ll be difficult to write about both his words and images, but I’ll be using it as a touchstone. It’s not cheap, so I’m not going to urge you to buy a copy of what may only interest you tangentially, but if you have the chance to peek through it (particularly Chapters 3-7) it’ll be worth it.

If nothing else, peruse Chapter 7, simply called The Six Steps. This is. McCloud insists, a path of understanding and execution of art shared by all artists, and I agree. It is a path of six points that one performs in order, but learns in reverse. (A disparity that, although McCloud doesn't state it, explains the grand amount of bad art in the world.)

The Steps are:
1. Idea/Purpose – Your inspiration
2. Form – What kind of art? In our case, the novel.
3. Idiom – What specific “school” or genre within that art form. In our case, the Christian novel.
4. Structure – The composition of the work as a whole. How it works together.
5. Craft – The construction of the book using the building blocks at your disposal.
6. Surface – The finished product, all nice and shiny.

Much of what this journal has discussed over the weeks is rooted in Step 3, Idiom. We are talking on an idiomatic level. (Not idiotic, wise guy.) However, as McCloud points out, artists learn the steps in reverse and we’ve skipped over 6, 5, and 4. (Does this mean I’m some genius who’s mastered those three steps? Yes. Yes, it does.)

The surface level comprehension is a dangerous one in book publishing. You know the saying that everybody has a story in them or a novel in their drawer? Yeah, that’s surface level. Anybody who’s ever read a novel, said “That’s easy, I could do that” and then finishes 20 pages, sees only the polish and finish. I don't really worry about that level here. You're all beyond it, I'm sure.

So instead, as the subject heading states, we’re going full steam ahead. To be frank, I’m not sure whether some of the principles we’ll discuss fit better in Step 4 or 5, but to me the two steps are very close together and sometimes intrinsic to each other. You ever hear the phrase, “workmanlike”? That’s somebody operating purely in Step 5. The mechanics are visible; there’s no real jolt on inspiration. Step 4 is home for the folks we call “good writers.” The line between them is blurry. But we’ll muddle, through. Tomorrow. We’ll start it tomorrow.

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

You May Be Wondering: Three Real Answers to Hypothetical Questions

A few comments about yesterday’s post (the list of books that we would or would not have published had we the opportunity.) These are issues you’re probably wondering about though they come from no specific reader.

1. “Are you nuts? You wouldn’t publish Asher Lev or The Hobbit? Do you have any taste whatsoever?”

My saying we wouldn’t publish something shouldn’t in anyway be construed as a comment on a work’s quality or aesthetic merit, but rather it’s place in our business plan. No matter how much we love the book, My Name Is Asher Lev just doesn’t fit in a CBA publisher’s list. You may think that’s unfortunate or dumb or worse, but that’s the true nature of this business. Thank God that there are ABA publishers ready to snatch such works up.

2.“If you wouldn’t publish 80% of these books, why bother discussing them? Why not talk about books you would publish?”

Two reasons. First, I think these books have more to teach us about writing. I’d rather have us learn from them and use them as our inspiration. Second, I’m in a precarious position here in what I say about CBA novels. Will I go on record here trashing the books we publish? Not a good career move. Will I take a book from another CBA publisher and critique it? I can’t. It’s a conflict of interest.

3. “Cut to the chase. I want to be published. How can I get published?”

Easiest way with us: write a well-written CBA book. If your writing is exceptional and your story strong, I’ll take a look at it. If it’s something I like I’ll handle it myself. In the least, I’d pass it to my colleagues who handle the more traditional CBA fiction. Boom! You’re on your way.

But that’s not why you’re here. You’re here pretty much because you want to go outside the mainstream of CBA fiction. You want to push boundaries and/or do something that’s never been seen before. And that’s the stuff I’ve been charged with finding. (Literally, that’s my job.)

What makes it more than slightly frustrating (for you and I and itchy readers) is that envelopes expand slowly and boundaries are not expanded overnight. Whether you like it or not, you are in the unfortunate position of being a trailblazer. It’s hard work and may go unrewarded. Every time we can publish an A+ novel within the CBA industry, however, the work gets a little easier. And there are more people alongside of you now. But you’ve got to realize that the real successes may not be seen for another generation. This isn’t a game for instant gratification or expectations of fame. And I don’t think I really want to work with folks who are in it for that anyway.

The writers I want are men and women who have a story they believe in. And they write it. Don’t even think about CBA’s parameters during your first draft. Complete it; polish it, and show it to me. At that point, we’ll talk about its place in the publishing continuum. Are their sacrifices you’re willing to make if the content simply can’t be handled in the CBA market? Are you willing to take some heat for publishing something that may raise eyebrows? These are all questions for down the line.

Right now the book needs to be written. Focus on the story. Don’t get caught up in the arguments and the muckety-muck. Nothing gets published (ABA or CBA) without being finished. And, no offense, anyone can have an idea for a novel. You’re really showing us something when you finish that idea.

Writers write. That’s it. It’s a simple equation. So write.

Hey, I found my copy of Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud. (It was buried in the basement under some software I haven’t used in months. Can you believe I didn’t look there sooner.) I hope you give some thought to checking the book out. I’m a comics geek, so there’s more in the book for me than someone who only cares about fiction, but I think any artist will appreciate its dissection of the medium. Libraries or a weekend trip to Barnes and Noble are great for taking a peek at such things.

Anyway, that means we can get on with our discussion of the craft of writing tomorrow. See you then!

Monday, February 23, 2004

My Dog Ate Today's Planned Column...

My name is Dave and I own too many books. I’ve known it for a while now, but it was mostly in that generic, unformed way in which I understand things like carburetors or physics or sushi. This weekend I got an abrupt lesson in what owning too many books means when I couldn’t located my copy of Understanding Comics. That puts a sizable kink into today’s plans seeing as how I was going to discuss and all.

So, it’s on reserve at the library and should be arriving within the week. In the meanwhile we’ll turn to every column writers boon companion in times like this: reader mail.

Jen P. asks an intriguing (hypothetical) question of the publisher for whom I work.

…how far is Bethany House willing to go? [in terms of content] Would your employer publish any of the books on your list had the author approached BHP?
Well, here’s the list along with my best guess and a reason or two why. (I haven’t read all these, so feel free to argue.)

A Canticle for Leibowitz - Doubtful. Too Catholic.
A Prayer for Owen Meany - As is, no. But we’d enjoy passing it around.
A Soldier of the Great War - Don’t know enough about this book.
All Hallows’ Eve - Possibly. It would be a tough sell, though.
Black Robe - Quite possibly.
Blue Shoe - No. Typical CBA content reasons.
Bridge of San Luis Rey - No. Not “Christian” enough.
Byzantium - Yes.
City of Joy - Possibly.
Collected Stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer - No.
Crime and Punishment - Hopefully.
Death Comes for the Archbishop - Don’t know enough about this book.
Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories - No. We don’t really do short stories.
Father Elijah - Nope. Too Catholic.
Gap Creek - Possibly. Some content issues though.
Glittering Images - Doubtful
God: Stories - No.
Godric - Yes.
Green Dolphin Street - Possibly. I intend to read soon. Will know more then.
Jewel - Doubtful.
Leaving Ruin - Yes.
Les Miserables - 1600 pages of translated French. Fun.
Liars and Saints - Nope. Content issues.
Lying Awake - Most likely no, but I would’ve gone down fighting.
Many Waters - Too long since I read. Maybe.
Mariette in Ecstasy - Doubtful. Sex and nuns don’t mix too easily.
Mr. Ives’ Christmas - Read it. Can’t remember a thing.
My Name is Asher Lev - Jewish book, so no. But we’d all love it.
North of Hope - No. Hassler is close, though.
Oscar and Lucinda - Priest with a gambling problem. No.
Our Lady of the Forest - No. Visions of Mary.
Peace Like a River - We would have tried.
Phantastes - We publish his Scottish romances.
Quarantine - No. Unorthodox view of Jesus.
Remembering - Know the author but not this book. Doubtful.
Return of the King - Christian message not explicit enough.
Saint Maybe - Doubtful, for content.
Saints and Sinners - Possibly. Haven’t read it, but it’s about Bonhoeffer.
Selected Stories by Andre Dubus - Regrettably, no.
The Book of the Dun Cow - Quite possibly.
The Diary of a Country Priest - There’d be a fight for it.
The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon - This is closer than you might think.
The Living - Don’t know this book. Author tends to be a touch…obscure.
The Man Who Was Thursday - Next to be read. From what I know, I doubt it.
The Moviegoer - Nyet. Catholic doubting.
The Passion of Reverand Nash - As is, no. Content. Close though.
The Power and the Glory - No.
The Testament - A tweak here and there and we might.
Til We Have Faces - Doubtful.
To Kill a Mockingbird - Yes.
Wise Blood - Doubtful. This one troubled my dreams.

Feel free to email me with any and all responses to this.

Friday, February 20, 2004

Day 5 of Jesus Saves—What Is a “Christian” Book Anyway?

It’s at moments like these that we realize how useless our categories becomes.

Hand Jesus Saves to a prototypical CBA reader and...well actually, please DON’T hand this book to such a person. It’s not for them. They’ll hate it. You will anger them greatly. Nasty letters may ensue. To them, this is the farthest thing from a Christian book. This book may very well be evil.

Hand it to an Iranian Muslim and they’ll probably nod and say, it is, first an American book and second a Christian book.

Hand it to me and I waffle more than the entire country of Belgium.

* Is it written with a Christian worldview in mind. Of a kind, yes.
* Will it lead people to a deeper understanding of Jesus. Yikes. I doubt it.
* Does it portray some non-clichéd version of Christian faith. Yes.
* Does it glorify God? Not particularly. At least in my reading.
* Is it a Christian novel?

Regardless of how you answer that question, we can’t overlook that the book does deal specifically with questions of faith and belief, particularly in the face of horrors—both day-to-day and catastrophic.

Here’s a passage on the sacred and the common:

Along the wafers stood bottles of Manischewitz grape wine. Downtown, homeless men drank Manischewitz in wrinkled brown bags. On Sundays, the wafers on the sterling plate and the wine in the medieval-style goblet took on aura and import, became what they called holy, but backstage their glamour was diminished, no more important now than saltine crackers and Boone’s Farm wine. Holiness was like that, you could never trap it or examine its uncanny elements.
Another on Ginger’s fears and faith:

…Ginger knew that if she had to believe in God and the angels, then devils and monsters existed too. Besides God was always letting all kinds of bad things happen. It would be different if car crashes and murders were written off to chance, but what scared Ginger as a child was that God just say on his golden throne and watched these things happen. Sure, he watched over you but that didn’t keep you safe. Actually it was even scarier to think of somebody staring at you all the time, like the disapproving ladies in church.
There’s really not much comment I can make on these passages. They’re fine observations—nothing earth shattering in them.

The most interesting comparison is in Steinke’s use of sermons to someone like Rachel Basch in Reverend Nash or your prototypical CBA sermon. She has three full sermons given in her book—two by Ginger’s father and a third by a visiting pastor from the popular megachurch in town. The sermons are, in a word, short. Maybe the homily of Lutheran churches are different from the services I attend, but what she offers in her book is about five minutes of speaking. Would that it were so some mornings.

Basch on the other hand only offers fragments of Reverend Nash’s discourses. And most CBA novelists choose to do the same, selecting the most pointed and applicable points they want to stress.

I’m not sure what I think of it. You can talk about church without talking about the sermons and yet it’s such an obvious place for authors to make their grand “point” that I think it’s losing its freshness. I do want to warn you that we aren’t interested in any more George MacDonald’s these days who fill pages and pages with sermonizing. Only rarely do sermons in real life have the acute sharpness to change a person’s life or mind and so it should be in novels as well.

So that’s it for Jesus Saves. If you’re considering picking it up, I just want you to be aware that the book is violent, graphic, and not intended to be pleasant at all. All those things that you can’t do in CBA books—you’ll find them here. Know your limits and your desires from a read and base your decision off that.

Next week, we’re going to look more in-depth at the craft of writing and how we can begin talking about the things that can be learned about writing. It is not simply an inborn gift that can’t be improved. Practice doesn’t necessarily make perfect unless it’s guided by a growing understanding and fuller appreciation for the nuts and bolts of the craft.

So it makes perfect sense that we’ll get into it by talking about comics. Huzzah.

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Day 4 of Jesus Saves—Is Saying “That’s So Cliché!” a Cliché?

For as much as Christians deplore how men and women of faith are often stereotyped in the arts and media, it’s reached the point where we can actually begin to thank Hollywood (and novels to a certain extant.) See, the idea of evil hiding behind the cross is now a cliché. It’s beginning to become rote and I think some interesting reversals and re-examination will begin happening now.

Take Night of the Hunter a moody, frightening film about a released convict out to find the fortune he learned about from his prison cellmate. At the time, Robert Mitchum’s character was shocking and disturbing because he was a wolf dressed in lamb’s clothing. Show the film now to many folks (or The Scarlet Letter or The Crucible and they won’t be surprised at all. Contexts have changed and outrage has turned to common knowledge. Frocked men, particular (no surprise) priests, have simply been slammed lately.

But talented writers know that can’t fall back on the cliché. So you have Jesus Saves as (putridly) ripe a book as any for an evil pastor, and yet we don’t find one. He’s not an abusive father; he’s not a philanderer; he’s not even hollow man without faith at all. He’s wounded and worn down and prideful and getting kicked out of his church, but those things are all built up rather than taken from some stock idea.

The same needs to be thought through with the church as well. We can’t just show a little country church as dead and dry or a large suburban mega-church as flashy and vapid. (Or even a postmodern church as painfully hip and inclusive). Jesus Saves does less well with this, but it’s a small point and since the perspective is seen mostly through the eyes of an embittered young girl whose dad is getting the shaft, you can understand it.

Eventually in your novel you’re going to have to use a stock character or two. You simply can’t spend enough time with every creation to make them wholly original. That’s fine. Just make sure they’re the minor characters and that we get a sense of why they’re seen as clichés.

This comes from perspective. Who is looking at them and commenting? In Passion of Reverend Nash you have the disgruntled elder who is tired of the pastor and is looking for any reason to get rid of him/her and/or getting on a high horse about something in the church. A similar character appears in Jesus Saves. Same with Sutter’s Cross. You can make them acceptable if their actions are viewed as such primarily by an outside source or if even a moment is spent humanizing them to some degree. Offer some basis for their decisions. In general, I’d say to be wary around such creations, though. They’re beginning to pile up.

Finally a word on what I’d promised to write about today—finding the dark underbelly to today’s Christian culture.

In a word: beware.

Plank and speck may be an illustration that has become overused and almost trite in the past decades, but these were words spoken by Jesus himself. We can’t afford to make them bumper stickers.

A good thrashing is needed now and then (and fiction is a wonderful place to do it because you aren’t hurting “real” people) however there’s a humility that needs to be in place as well. Arrogance (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone) festers in the midst of criticism. We just need to be aware of it and pray the Lord keep us from it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2004

Day 3 of Jesus Saves—I Hear You Loud and Unclear

One way of looking at this is that author Darcey Steinke simply has more guts than I do. In a million years I would never, ever have chosen one of my point-of-view characters to be an abducted teenage girl being put through physical, sexual, and mental horrors. How could you even hope to enter into their thoughts enough to present a coherent narrative? And why would you want to?

I still don’t fully understand why were are taken along into Sandy Patrick’s hell, but Steinke makes a justifiable choice in how it happens. Steinke chooses to present Sandy’s voice as fractured nearly beyond comprehension through the trauma she’s put through. Her defense mechanism has been to withdraw into a world of memory and comforting illusion whenever she can. It offers no physical defense (which makes much of the story that much harder to read), but it shields her spirit and soul at least a little.

Steinke takes us into Sandy’s madness (that’s what we’ll call it for lack of a better word) slowly. She doesn’t dump us into the heart of it, but eases us in. Sandy’s first narrated chapter is nearly all coherent. It places us, places her, and gives us an introduction to her imprisonment. It is third-person-limited but very self-aware, as though she were watching herself from outside. Finally at the end, chained up and desperate she begins to remember and falls into a waking dream of her family. It lasts only a paragraph of two. We are taken through more narrative during which Sandy finally and fully realizes that the man who has abducted her is insane himself. Understanding what this means, she takes her one opportunity to flee.

She does not succeed. I think this more than anything is the button the author pushes to send Sandy over the edge. Her hope has dwindled and in the crushing weight of it she begins to go insane. Fantastic animals (a bear, a caterpillar, and a unicorn) eventually become her companions, their conversations at the heart of the fairy tale world she creates for her escape. Here’s a section:

“[The troll] drove leaning forward, headlights off, trying to navigate like a moth by moonlight. The passage was tight, branches flicked against both sides of the van, and the mud road made oozy sounds. The party, Sandy decided, was for the turtle because he was seventy-six. She wore false eyelashes made of spiders’ legs and a wreath of violets around her head, and the caterpillar, who was so much younger and always looking for bits of wisdom to improve his rhetoric, asked what she’d learned in life so far.

“‘Not to eat bad grass,’ the turtle said.”
So in that we get the narrative information that Sandy is being driven somewhere and the delusion along with it. This is the style that plays out through the rest of the portions. You find yourself grasping for fragments that make sense and keep you moving through the story. It’s a “difficult” kind of reading and one that will simply appall or turn off many people (on a variety of levels.)

So why do it?

There’s no one simple answer to that question and really it’s not all that important a question to ask. Literature is on a continuum of ease of comprehension. You have simple stories like The Very Hungry Caterpillar; you have intricate children’s stories like Holes; you have straightforward novels like DaVinci Code; you have non-linear novels like Mariette in Ecstasy. A book like Jesus Saves is far easier to understand than, say, William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.

The better question isn’t why? but more specifically, what is gained?

There is no doubt that seeing the world through Stacy’s POV takes us deeper into the horror of this world than we would have otherwise been allowed. This isn’t a glass-bottom-boat tour of hell; this is full-scale tour, complete with tour guide. I winced the first time I saw Stacy’s name at the chapter heading as narrator. That kind of effect simply wouldn’t come any other way.

Other fractured narrations offer different opportunities to authors.

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem tells a detective story through the POV of a man with Tourette’s, jazzing both language and action because of the disorder. Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime does the same thing with Autism. Neither of these stories are quite as fractured as Jesus Saves but they’ll give you examples of slightly less difficult and intrusive ways it can be done.

In the end, writing a novel is about communication. Sometimes, though, you want to communicate the disorder, the confusion, the garbled noise that keeps us from understanding each other. Sometimes you want to put words to the inexpressible to prove that it truly is inexpressible. That’s where talking caterpillars and backwards-speaking-Lynchian-dwarves, and all sorts of interference will come in. You just have to prepare your reader and know that you may lose some folks along the way. Hopefully, those that do come along will be enriched for the risk that you take.

Tuesday, February 17, 2004

Pale Pages, Black Cover, Lots of Mascara Around It's "I's"—Hey, It's a Gothic Novel!

So, you know what I don’t like? I don’t like when a sermon or essay begins by pulling out Webster’s dictionary to offer us a definition. It’s cliché and boring and it’s exactly what I’m going to do right now because in talking about Goths and the Gothic mindset it’s important to get a few facts straight. (Oh, and if you’re interested in reading what may be the most definitive survey of Gothic psychology, art, and influence, check out Gothic by Richard Davenport-Hines. Slick cover.)

1. Gothic Art—Traditional
Gothic style appeared during the Middle Ages, primarily in architecture. Think brooding, massive cathedrals like Notre Dame and Chartres. Here’s a nice link of other links if you want to see actual images.

2. Gothic Literature—Classic
(according to Merriam-Webster Unabridged) c (1) : of or relating to a late 18th and early 19th century style of fiction characterized by the use of medieval settings, a murky atmosphere of horror and gloom, and macabre, mysterious, and violent incidents.

Dracula and Frankenstein are part of this. The Castle of Otranto.

3. Gothic Literature—Modern (including Jesus Saves)
2) : of or relating to a literary style or an example of such style characterized by grotesque, macabre, or fantastic incidents or by an atmosphere of irrational violence, desolation, and decay

Some more examples are Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved are part of this. The line becomes pretty blurry between horror and gothic, however.

4. Goths
Ah, Goths. Our gloomy, fair-skinned friends. You’d see them at Cure concerts. Or standing in line to get Neil Gaiman’s autograph. Or buying one more studded collar. They are “children of the night” with a bent toward the occult and a pre-occupation with eyeliner. The word you most commonly hear used to slander them is “freak.”

At its heart, I think “gothic” mindset thinks that it’s about honesty. Pain and misery abound in the world, so why do we pretend as though our lives are actually pleasant? Let’s call a blood-filled-vial a blood-filled-vial and at least revel in our moodiness and gloom. Let’s make it our home so we can master it, rather than let it master us.

Yeah, so that’s a reductionist pop-psych 101 take, but there’s a kernel of truth to it. (I like this site’s cheeky take on the whole movement.)

So, that’s a lot of set-up. The question put before us, is what purpose does Gothic literature serve? What’s the reason we have books that traffic in darkness and gloom? And where does faith—supposedly a light that should never have a bushel over it—fit into this mess?

To me, Gothic literature is, on a continuum, as far from standard “Christian” fiction has you can get. Where horror fiction often wallows in Evil, usually there is a corresponding Good that proves more powerful. In Gothic literature, the evil is much more insidious and often in our own hearts.

As Ginger’s father preaches in Jesus Saves

“…each of us must look into our own hearts and acknowledge the darkness there. That’s the shocking truth. The evil power that abducted Sandy is not just the exception to the rule but rather part of the fabric of human reality, of our reality, a dark fabric with which we are all clothed and which we cannot cast off.”
This is original sin taken to its brutal and unsettling apex. Or, sans theology, it’s nihilism turned outward, the annihilation of others because of the meaningless of life. Either way it’s a rough and rocky road and one I don’t enjoy treading too often. As I’ve mentioned before, I think there’s value in such works, however. Just as I think there’s value in a book that shows what happens when moral choices are ignored, I think there’s merit, every once in a while, to trying to fathom a world of oppressing ugliness (through fiction) to more fully appreciate the blessings of the real world in which we live.

Whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy—think about such things. Philippians 4:8

This is a tough bit of Scripture that comes up a lot when face with difficult art. People often use it as the millstone to sink any attempt to show the world as anything other than mild and redeemed. I think any writer will need to find his or her own answer to it, both in her reading and writing. Do you pick up a book like Jesus Saves and see what it holds for the world? Do you write that story about a Christian engulfed in Depression who just can’t for the life of her find her way out?

Nobody said this was always going to be simple or fun. But we’ll find our way.

Monday, February 16, 2004

Welcome to Suburbia, Better Known as H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks

That bitter, gagging taste in my mouth, that’s not from the Yankees trading for the best player in baseball and making me hate them even more, no, that’s from this lovely little book called Jesus Saves.

Starting with two whacked-out teens slamming into a deer and turning its soon-severed head into a shrine, the book is the literary equivalent of pulling up a log in a forest to see what’s crawling underneath. Not for the feint of heart (not even for the iron-stomached) it goes past the suburbia-as-soulless-treatment seen in White Noise and the oh-so-proud-of-itself film American Beauty and portrays suburbia as its own lurid, fairy tale nightmare being terrorized by one deadly, bearded troll.

The book is narrated from two perspectives: Ginger, a Lutheran pastor’s daughter on a slippery slope of drugs, sex, and violence, and Sandy Patrick, an abducted teenage girl being held at the mercy of a disturbed and violent loner. The troll. Sound fun yet?

Still, I think we can learn from it. Hopefully.

Tomorrow, I think we’ll discuss the notion of gothic art and our perception and relation to beauty.

Wednesday we can talk about fractured, noisy writing and the difficulty of making the unclear, clear.

Thursday we’ll think about some of the nastiness on the underbelly of Christianity that could use the bright light of art.

Friday we’ll examine the role of “religious writing” in Jesus Saves.

Today I’ll just note that, in many ways, this is the anti-CBA novel. Where CBA is unflappably upbeat and sunny, this is downcast and squalid. Everything here is about ugliness and rot. It’s a mausoleum of a novel. You can make the complaint that it’s as untruthful a vision of the world as a CBA fantasy-land, but it won’t get very far. That’s kind of the point. The book is intentionally horrifying. What’s less clear is if CBA novels are “intentionally” all hope and sunshine or if it’s just a by-product of the novels’ Christian message. Figuring that out (and toying with it) will be one more step toward getting to the heart and core of understanding our genre.

Friday, February 13, 2004

Looking Ahead

So, next week we’ll be discussing Jesus Saves and looking at some hard questions of the balance between realism, entertainment, and what happens when you write something others may not want to read.

After that I’m going to get back to talking about writing with a discussion of craft and understanding craft. The first day or two of this is going to focus on Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. If you’ve any disposable income and don’t feel like sending it to me out of the kindness of your heart, you may want to consider buying this text. Very little is actually applicable to fiction writing, but the thought and intention behind it is astounding. If nothing else, see if your library system has it and check it out.

Looking far ahead, I will be attending the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College this April 22-24. I’m going as an exhibitor and hope to keep a running journal from my time there. It’s the premier event in this country for serious discussion of faith and the literary arts. Non-fiction, poetry, drama, and more are also spoken at the event, so it’s not just a fiction focus. Some of the speakers include Joyce Carol Oates, Leif Enger, Frederick Buechner, Douglas Coupland, and tons others. An eclectic mix, to say the least.

Beyond that I’ll be attending (and presenting) at the Colorado Christian Writer’s Conference in Estes Park in mid-May. More on that as the time approaches.

Keep emailing with any questions or comments.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Bad News Awaits...

You’ll come to learn that there are a few core beliefs you need to share with me should we end up working together as editor/author. Over time I’ll spell these out fully in what will become our writer’s creed, but today I want to tackle at least two.

Foundational Truth #4 – Sean Connery is the only James Bond worth mentioning. This isn’t up for debate.


Foundational Truth #1 – Writers are the sole arbitrator of what a novel is trying to say. Readers are the sole arbitrator of what the novel actually says.

This may sound like a platitude, but it is a core belief I hold regardless of the three hats I wear: editor, author, reader. You must understand this for us to be able to work together. And for some writers the hard part isn’t the first sentence—it’s the second.

People, in the heart of hearts, are mostly delusional. We have an uncanny knack of lying to ourselves and finely honed abilities to rationalize or persuade ourselves of almost anything. (i.e. see American Idol on Fox). Therefore we can write something, read it to ourselves and think it the most wonderful thing ever written, and completely fail to understand why nobody else agrees.

As a writer you are allowed ONLY to try and say something. I’m trying right now to communicate what will become a salient point about receiving criticism. Am I succeeding? Sure, why not? How do I know? I don’t. I don’t know at all until I talk to one of you reading out there.

This is why critique and commentary and criticism are so important. It came up in our recent interviews that there is a dearth of outside and honest criticism in our industry and I truly feel we pay the price for this. Our emperor is without clothes and there really isn’t anybody around willing to point and laugh at us for prancing about butt-nekid.

So, in your own writing, please seek out critique and criticism. And leave your friends out of it if you can, unless you’re both seasoned pros. Consider writing and reading as a business. You don’t want place a friend in an awkward spot of not liking your work. It’s far better to get a total stranger (me for instance) who you can latter curse at under your breath (or aloud) when I come back with bad news.

Because I will.

We’ve gotten to know each other over the past weeks and months and I want to take the mask off now and show my true face. I’m basically the Grim Reaper. Getting published is very, very, very, very, very hard and most likely what I’m going to give you is bad news.

I will try to do it kindly. I will try to be Neil Gaiman’s version of Death and not Ingmar Bergman’s. If I do send you back less than thrilling news, you have two valid ways of responding.

1. Curse me. Hate me. Call me a moron and say I’m wrong.
2. Curse me. Hate me. Call me a moron and see if I’m wrong.

When I say readers determine what your book says, I really mean that. It’s multiple. That’s why any book goes through a number of reviews and reads before it can even be considered for publication. If we get four people to read a book and one likes it and four don’t, guess what happens?

I am just one man. I can be wrong. I may be right though and you need to consider that.

And that’s the kind of post you get written by a man staring out a window at a bleak landscape of falling snow knowing his commute awaits.

I leave you with this.

Love bites. Love bleeds. It’s bringing to me knees. Def Leppard

I love you all. But I need to be cruel to be kind.

...Ah, But What About the Good News

Some of you, I know in my heart, are good enough, smart enough, and talented enough to make it through any and all critique and come up with something exceptional that any moron (even me) would be an idiot not to publish.

That's your hope. Your challenge.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

Some Questions for Our Readers. Yeah, That Means You!

From the time on this post (or if you checked in earlier on Tuesday and found nothing) you'll realize that this is coming a bit late in the day. I am determined to make this a daily work-week journal, but this is also a work-based activiity and sometimes more pressing matters make it impossible for me to get to this. Sorry, for any inconvenience.

Since we've been recently in the mode of listening to others' opinions on the industry and the (according to most-everybody) improving state of Christian fiction, I want to take a moment and point you to reason number two for having created this journal as listed under i n t e n t to the right.

Conversation. Debate. Dialogue. Discussion. Interaction. You get the picture.

I'm not just blowing smoke here. From the responses I've gotten from readers, there are many who like what's being said (or most of it at least) and feel that this is one of the few if not the only public forums where such things are being hashed through. I'm glad, but I think it'll become even more relevant if we get a feedback/call-response/upraised voices cycle going here.

So, I'd like to post a few questions for you to think about and, if you would, respond to. You can respond either through the comment box at the end of the post (it's really pretty easy) or you can email me here.

1. What are some topics/issues you'd like me to address in upcoming weeks?

2. What are some books you'd like added to the list at right?

3. Should I try to develop some chatboard pages that can be used for more lengthy conversation rather than just the comment button?

4. Are you interested in writing your own "entry" sometime and having me post it under your name?

5. Would you rather keep checking in or should I add a mailgroup option that will Email you when the site is updated?

6. Would you like to join me sometime in reading a novel and post our discussion about it online?

7. Would you be interested in developing some sort of online writers' workshop through this site with other writers' around the country?

8. Would you rather this site be hosted off of Blogger's network so I can add graphics and other content or is the journal enough?

9. Should I wander afield on occasion to look at Christian artistic expression in other fields (music, film, etc.) or just stick to books?

10. Anything else you want to tell me about the site? Problems? Suggestions?

Truly, thanks for those who will be chiming in. I love getting to write this thing everyday, but I want it to be more than just a sounding board for my own frustrations and hopes.


Monday, February 09, 2004

Day 6: Part II of Ann Tatlock's Interview

(This is part of II of Ann Tatlock’s interview on the subject of faith and fiction.)

FiF: What makes a novel "Christian"?
AT: Obviously the word Christian is in quotation marks here because the novel itself isn’t Christian; the novelist is. Everyone has a worldview—even people who think they don’t—and in work of fiction, the novelist’s worldview is going to come across. I just can’t see that there’s any getting around it. If “Christian fiction” is seen as propaganda by unbelievers (“Just a hellfire-and-brimstone sermon dressed in an unrippable bodice”) then by rights, secular humanist fiction, for example, is also propaganda (“We’re all doomed to eternal extinction and we might as well be brave enough to face it”). Any novelist is simply putting down on paper what he/she believes.

The Christian novelist sees life’s experiences from the Christian viewpoint. And so he writes from that viewpoint. He has a right to do so. And a responsibility to do so. As Paul Harvey pointed out in a recent commentary, the greatest right for all men and women (Writers: think “readers” here) is the right to hear the truth.

FiF: When people ask about your writing, how do you define it for them?
AT: To answer this question, I will lift FAQ #1 from directly off my website. “What kind of books do you write? If someone could give me a one-word answer to this question, I’d be grateful. This is my MOST frequently asked question, and I don’t have a good answer. I don’t write romance stories, though I’m often—to my great puzzlement--categorized as a romance writer. My books have been described as both contemporary and historical, though it seems a good trick that they should be both at once. I know for certain that my stories, so far, would never be considered science fiction, mystery, western, futuristic, allegory, or suspense. Maybe the closest category would be inspirational, but that might mean different things to different people. And so my usual answer to this question is, “I write books about people.” The common response to this statement is a blank stare. However, at this point, it’s the best I can do.”

(It appears, from looking at this, that I try to avoid the label “Christian fiction.”)

FiF: Who or what is your first priority as writer in starting and working through a novel?
AT: Many things are important to me as I work: to tell a good story, to create believable and memorable characters, to write well, to be historically accurate.

But my first priority as a writer is to say something.

Seems obvious but, oddly enough, in the postmodern literary world, this concept is completely out of vogue. The thought here is not so much that writers don’t say anything, but that they CAN’T say anything. Or maybe they ARE saying something, but they themselves have no idea what. Words don’t have any innate meaning anymore that we can all agree upon. And so, whatever the reader gets out of the novel—well, that’s up to him. The reader decides what the novel is telling him.

Baloney. It just doesn’t work that way. Language is for communicating. We take words, string them together, form paragraphs, create books because, as human beings, we have something to say to each other. We have an inborn desire to share our thoughts, ideas, beliefs—hence, the development of words that have meanings we all agree upon (for the most part).

Writing a novel is one way of giving voice to an idea, but so is simply having a conversation. All of us do it everyday. To pretend as the postmodernists do that it doesn’t matter what you’re trying to say, that what matters is only what your hearer thinks you’re trying to say, goes against all human reason. The world would be in complete chaos if this were true.

Postmodern novelists would do well to reach back into their childhoods and take a lesson from Horton the Elephant: “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant.” If you don’t have anything concrete to tell me (whether it’s something I might agree with or not), then don’t waste your time and mine by putting out a book.

Saying something. That’s what writing’s all about.

FiF: Is there any theme or issue you're unwilling to write about? Any content you're unwilling to put in your books?
AT: It’s our job as storytellers to examine the human condition and to portray the world in all its splendor, squalor, beauty and sordidness. And always, always, always to do this with hope. There’s a place for escapist literature, but there’s also a need to tell the truth. Frederick Buechner (one of the best, in my opinion) said of his characters in an interview with “The Reformed Journal” (March 1990): “[A]ny saint I write about [will] always have feet of clay, because they are the only saints I know anything about or that I could imagine. I don’t think there are any other kind. I can’t imagine a hero of the faith in the sense that he or she did not have shadows and darkness.” That’s us; saints but plodders.

I think it would be interesting (innovative?) to have a Christian novel with a homosexual hero. That is, “hero” in the literary sense: protagonist, main character, yes, saint with feet of clay. They are out there. Homosexual men and women who are struggling with the manifestation of the Fall within them, just as we are all struggling with our own brokenness.

A word about discretion here. On the whole, it’s a concept that has been lost, or maybe tossed aside as an antiquated inhibitor of human expression. Another ‘60s thing, I suppose. “Look at us! We’re finally all grown up! We can talk about anything!” As far as I can see, a loss of discretion does not a mature adult make.

There are simply parts of the human experience that are not meant for public consumption. If I were to have a gay protagonist, I would take you into his heart, his mind, his soul, the daily interactions of his life, but I would not take you into his bedroom. Neither should you want to go in there.

FiF: What's your favorite novel or two that tackles issues of faith?
AT: A story called “Master and Man,” found in the book, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, by Leo Tolstoy. Talk about heroes with feet of clay. The Master is Vasili Brekhunov, a well-to-do innkeeper and merchant, a church elder who likes to dip into the church coffers if he needs money for a business deal. He’s basically a greedy snob who looks condescendingly on the poor peasants who work for him. One such peasant is Nikita, a fairly likable fellow, except for the fact that he drinks too much, has at times a violent temper, can’t seem to hold on to his money, and has a wife who would just as soon not be his wife.

It’s a story about grace. As the two men take a journey by horse and sleigh through the snowy Russian countryside to take care of a business deal, Vasili journeys inwardly toward the understanding of what “the real thing is”—that real thing that gives joy, and true satisfaction. This revelation comes, amazingly, while Vasili is in the act of laying down his own life to save Nikita from freezing to death.

Thanks to Ann, Donna, Lynn, Jana, and Dale for helping out and responding with their thoughts. Thanks to Micah T. for helping with the posting in my absence. I hope everybody enjoyed this little break and I promise I'll try to come up with some more interesting names to interview in the near future.

Tomorrow, we're back with regular posts.

Friday, February 06, 2004

Day 5: Chatting with Ann Tatlock

Ann Tatlock is the author of four novels: A Room of My Own, A Place Called Morning, All the Way Home, and I’ll Watch the Moon. All the Way Home won the 2003 Christy Award for Contemporary Fiction and 2002 Midwest Book Award for Fiction. A former editor for Decision magazine, she lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, with her husband and daughter.

(Ann’s interview will run in two parts, Part I today and Part II on Monday.)

FiF: If I say "Christian fiction," what is your gut response?
AT: My gut response is to cringe slightly and to ask another question: “Why is there any such thing?” By that I don’t mean, “Why are writers who are Christians producing fiction?;” rather, “Why is our fiction categorized as such?” Why is it not simply Fiction, a part of that vast literary conversation that includes the voices of atheists, agnostics, deists, Buddhists, Muslims, Toaists, New Agers, ad infinitum? Why is the Christian voice, at least in the last three decades, so much excluded—not entirely but to a vast degree--from the general exchange of ideas in the conversation known as literature?

Well, that wasn’t simply one question, but you get the idea. The thing is, there was a time when “Christian” novels were published in the mainstream. Think about writers like C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Graham Greene, Dorothy Sayers--decidedly Christian, yet published by secular houses. There were no Christian houses when they were putting out their fiction, of course--yet the fact remains that the Christian voice was still an acceptable part of the debate. So what happened? Were we shut out? Did we leave by choice?

I suppose to find answers you’d have to consider the historical reasons behind all of this—the 18th century Enlightenment, the rise of Darwinism, secularism, existentialism and all those other isms that led to the death of God and the general turning away from religion in mass droves in the 1960s. Even if I were as well versed in all this history as I should be, I wouldn’t have time to go into all that here.

Suffice it to say that by the 1960s, Christian thought and biblical values, once generally accepted, became unfashionable. Both the Gospel and that now-rare commodity called moral restraint were cast off in a frenzy of cultural liberation. Not unexpectedly, the “Anything Goes!” philosophy started showing up in fiction in the form of sex, violence, obscenities, and perhaps worst of all, hopelessness, all of which was unappealing to those people who still believed in the Lordship of Christ.

So it seems we Christians did a little rebelling of our own, forming something of a sub-culture set apart from the damages and influences of the counter-culture movement. “Christian” publishing houses (specializing in Bibles, works of theology and other non-fiction books) started putting out “Christian” fiction. That way, Christian readers could pick up a novel and read it without fear of being offended. Editors at these publishing houses could be trusted to serve as moral gate-keepers, and rightly so.

But while the “Christian Fiction” ID has served as a guide for Christian readers (and that is a very good thing), my fear is that it has actually become a warning label for secular or otherwise non-Christian readers: “Contains outmoded and narrow-minded biblical ideas. All intellectuals, academicians, free-thinkers, serious bibliophiles, and left-wing liberals need not waste time reading.” And this is a very bad thing. Because these are the very people that need the message of hope put forth through this vehicle called fiction.

And so I cringe a bit whenever I hear our work referred to as Christian fiction. Because no matter how good a work it might be, if a novel is categorized as Christian, it’s guaranteed that that label alone is enough to scare away at least some of the people who might have appreciated it, and even gained something from it.

FiF: What is the one thing most lacking, in your opinion, in the CBA book/fiction industry? (This can be in the books, the publishers, the retailers, whatever).
AT: The idea of novel as art form. We’re getting beyond the idea of novel as fictional conversion story and/or sex-free and squeaky clean romance, and that’s good. But we’re still up in the air somewhere as we make the leap from creating stories to creating art.

You can pick up a novel by, say, Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Thomas Wolfe, or Leo Tolstoy and read for the sheer loveliness of it. The prose is poetry. The trick (and it’s really no trick, but years and years of honing a craft) is to go beyond simply getting an idea down on paper. The goal is to do this, yes, but more than that, to do it beautifully. To make good use of the tools of our trade: simile, metaphor, analogy, imagery, detailed description. To go beyond the obvious, and to make connections that the reader might never have encountered before. To refuse to settle for the first word or phrase that comes to mind, but to rewrite, and think, and struggle, and rewrite again. To say something old in a completely new way. To be original.

FiF: What's the strongest thing about the CBA book industry?
AT: We’re growing. We’re changing and maturing. We’re open to new ideas. This website alone is proof of that.

FiF: Do you think a book published by a self-acknowledged Christian publishing company will ever be judged on its own merits by the general market? Should it be?
AT: Yes and yes. I think this is already happening. I’ll use an example from my own experience, only because I’m most familiar with my own experience. (There are probably numerous similar examples out there that I know nothing about.)

Last year my book All the Way Home won first place in the adult fiction category of the Midwest Book Awards (sponsored by the Midwest Independent Publisher’s Association). It seems to me that Bethany House was one of the few (maybe the only?) Christian publishing house represented there.

To all the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners out there, this may be small potatoes, but hey, it’s a start.

FiF: What do you foresee in the future for Christian fiction publishing?
AT: We will stop being the Rodney Dangerfield of the literary world: “I can’t get no respect.”

Since God died—or rather, was murdered—in the halls of academia (thanks a lot, Nietzsche), Christians began to be equated with anti-intellectualism. We became the narrow-minded, fable-believing crowd of innocents who couldn’t be bothered to think. At least not rationally. Because anyone who thinks rationally would conclude, of course, that God was a myth and Jesus—if he lived at all—was just a nice guy peddling a new kind of peace-promoting, feel-good, love-your-neighbor philosophy.

The modern secular humanist’s and postmodernist’s idea of conversion: “Christ comes into the heart; brain falls out of the head.”

Clever of Satan, don’t you think? And so here we are in this Postmodern age (though I understand we are slipping into post-postmodernism, whatever that is) in which Individual Man, being the highest level of authority, decides for himself what truth is, because there is no Absolute Truth. [By the way, did you know that “the ideas we call postmodernism were first formulated in the field of literary analysis”? (The Death of Truth, by Dennis McCallum, p. 86.)]

Picture Satan and his four-star generals sitting around their conference table in Hell HQ, trying to come up with new and intellectually respectable ways of destroying people. Suddenly one of them pipes up (probably the top guy himself), “I know! Let’s attack them in the comfort of their reading chairs! Let’s make them think that whatever they think is all there is to think, because after all there’s no real truth outside of their own minds. Let’s make the idea of Absolute Truth completely unbelievable. That ought to kill them off in droves!”

And so it does. In the spiritual battle going on for people’s minds and souls, literature in the hands of the enemy is a weapon of mass destruction.

Christian literature can respond with the Gospel message, the double-edged sword that convicts of sin and convinces of Truth. What we’re trying to get across in our work isn’t just ideas of one sort or another, it’s Truth itself. It’s a living thing that has the power to change lives. Consider C.S. Lewis. In Surprised by Joy, Lewis relates how, while reading Phantastes by George MacDonald, his “imagination was, in a certain sense, baptized.” MacDonald’s novel served as a steppingstone in Lewis’s journey toward faith. Something similar happened to William Murray, son of Madelyn Murray O’Hair, and consequently our mid-twentieth century’s poster child for atheism. His imagination was sparked by Taylor Caldwell’s novel Dear and Glorious Physician, a story about Luke, author of Acts and of the gospel that bears his name. Today Murray is a Christian evangelist.

My hope for Christian fiction is that there will be a backlash to all this postmodern anti-speak and people will want to read novels again that aren’t a complete vacuum. They’ll be looking for stories with substance.

The challenge for us as Christian writers is to offer something worth reading.

Thursday, February 05, 2004

Day 4: Talking with Donna Kehoe of the Christy Awards

Donna Kehoe has been the administrator of the Christy Awards since their inception in 2000, and in that role she's met many great fiction editors and marketers, authors, and readers plus worked with an exceptional advisory board. She has a M.A. plus doctoral hours in literature, has taught college-level courses for several years, and presently does marketing communications writing and consulting for a variety of clients.

FiF: What sparked the initial conversation that led to the creation of the Christy Awards?
DK: The Christy Awards grew out of an in-house conversation within Bethany House led by VP of Editorial-Fiction, Carol Johnson. The aim was to honor and bring attention to wonderful novels that perhaps weren’t in the spotlight of bestselling sales. Editors at all the major Christian publishing houses met at CBA International in 1999 to discuss the idea further and the name Christy was selected in honor of Catherine Marshall’s fictional heroine, the forerunner to today’s modern Christian fiction.

FiF: Why the decision to honor books in numerous genres (Romance, Mystery, Sci-Fi, etc.) rather than simply name the “best” book of the year?
As this year’s National Book Awards brouhaha revealed, genre fiction (or sub-genre fiction, if it is first written within the genre of “Christian fiction”) is a viable novel form. Genre fiction is written within specific conventions or constraints, but good genre fiction demands attention to and mastery of the craftsmanship of novel writing.

To answer your question: the Christys honor books in genre to highlight the breadth of fiction choices available to the reader of Christian fiction.

Historical fiction and romance fiction (or historical romance fiction!) used to be the only choices available to the reader of Christian fiction; that’s no longer true. In fact, other categories (contemporary and suspense) regularly have more submissions than historical or romance have.

FiF: Does this choice limit the ability to use the awards as a barometer of the quality of fiction available?
DK: Each novel submitted for the Christys is placed in one of seven possible genre categories or the “first novel” category, and each category is judged by a panel of seven readers who rate the novel on a scale of 1-10 against an 8-point criteria: characterization, plot, theme, setting and atmosphere, mechanics, point-of-view, writing quality, passion and understanding. In order to win a Christy (and ensure that this award is thus an indicator of quality), a novel must score above 80%.

FiF: One area Christian publishing is FAR behind in is honest criticism by outside sources. We don’t have a Sunday Book Review, Atlantic Monthly or Christian Science Monitor. Why is there such a lack of critique in this market?
DK: On the great timeline of novel writing, CBA fiction is young. One of the signature novels, Catherine Marshall’s Christy, was first published in 1967 for a general audience, and its crossover appeal to CBA shelves alongside Grace Livingston Hill and a few others opened the way for other authors to write novels that would be acceptable in CBA stores.

In addition to CBA fiction’s relative youth, the numbers of CBA novels published annually are small—somewhere between 200-250. At this point, there’s just not the critical mass necessary for critique vehicles devoted to this fiction.

Several other issues complicate meaningful critique. One is the mindset among some Christians that any work done by a Christian is outside the bounds of critique as long as the writer’s motive was to honor God. The second is that evangelicals as a whole don’t have an articulated theology of the arts against which a work can be critiqued. The third has been the general disregard among some Christians for the quality of fiction available in CBA markets—this we hope to influence with the Christys.

On the positive side, several novels published by CBA publishers have received critical short reviews in Christianity Today’s “Bookmarks” over the past couple of years, and Publisher’s Weekly, a trade journal for booksellers, reviews CBA fiction alongside general market fiction in their “Fiction Reviews.”

FiF: Must CBA publishers break long-standing content “rules” about sex, swearing, and “sin” in general to be taken seriously in the general market?
DK: I haven’t been in the industry long—only five years—but I’ve seen enough exceptions to avoid making any predictive statements! Plus, it seems that the general market, just like the CBA market, takes sales seriously, and sales in either market are not necessarily indicative of literary quality (reference the recent success of The DaVinci Code).

I’ve seen several longstanding rules start to bend a little, such as those against violence (read some of the Christian “thrillers”) and drinking (more and more glasses of wine are showing up in CBA pages).

FiF: Must CBA publishers compromise on the religious content of their books to be taken seriously in the general market?
DK: I’ve read many books published by ABA publishers that have had as much Christian world underpinning (if not more, in some instances) than those published by CBA publishers. Go figure.

FiF: How has the market changed in your time working in Christian fiction?
DK: As I mentioned, there’s a strong trend away from a reliance on historical and romance novels to a focus on contemporary and suspense/thrillers. Part of this is due, I suspect, to a publishing strategy to attract younger readers, and part is due to a trend to explore contemporary issues in fiction, such as medical ethics, domestic abuse, response to terrorism, etc.

Another interesting trend corresponding to the first has been the increasing number of male authors writing CBA fiction. In the 2004 Christys, 42% of all novels entered are written by men (59 out of 138).

FiF: What’s your favorite novel or two that tackles issues of faith
DK: I have a couple of favorite CBA novels, but in the interest of remaining a neutral administrator, I’ll not identify those!

My two recent ABA favorites are both short nun novels: Mariette in Ecstasy (which you just discussed) and Lying Awake.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Day 3: An Interview with Lynn Waalkes of CBA Marketplace

Lynn Waalkes is the book editor at CBA Marketplace. She’s a compulsive reader and has the poor eyesight to prove it. She shares her home with one very teenage daughter, one cat, two kittens, and one beleaguered hamster.

FiF: If I say "Christian fiction," what is your gut response?
LW: It's pretty positive, actually. Over the past few years I've seen more quality fiction being published. More fiction is well-written than not, these days. We still have hastily thrown together series fiction that suffer from a lack of time given to plot and characterization. We still have vanity fiction "written" by Christian celebrities that typically promotes the writer's platform and suffers accordingly. We still have publishing houses that don't have a high standard for fiction. And we still have readers who can't tell good fiction from bad.
But that's true in the ABA, too.

FiF: How about "CBA Fiction"?
LW: How is that different from Christian fiction? Do you see it as a subset of Christian fiction? If so, I sure hope that's changing. We need to be ready to embrace good Christian fiction wherever we find it, whether it's published by a CBA or ABA company. If you consider "CBA fiction" a substandard form of Christian fiction, it's a pretty insulting term and seems unfair. At one time—not all that long ago—the industry didn't value fiction and didn't commit resources to finding or cultivating good writers. There were exceptions, but not many. There seemed to be a perception that Christian bookstore customers didn't read fiction.
But that has changed and "CBA fiction" is becoming stronger and more diverse. We have better entries in every genre of writing and many good writers. I think it's wrong to lump all fiction from CBA publishers together and consider it a substandard genre.

FiF: What is the one thing most lacking, in your opinion, in the CBA book/fiction industry? (This can be in the books, the publishers, the retailers, whatever)
LW: Just one thing? OK—I think readers are slow to discriminate between good and bad writing, and I think that's part of what allows so much bad stuff to linger in the industry. I think some Christian fiction is read by people who aren't readers. They don't recognize poor writing because they haven't read enough good literature—CBA or ABA—to recognize the difference between good and bad writing. But that's partly a cultural thing stemming from the variety of entertainment media available. People just don't read much anymore and when they do, they want their novels to parallel fast-paced, 30-minute TV shows. If customers are willing to read second-rate fiction, some authors and publishers won't feel the need to improve the quality of what they're selling.
This is a problem in the ABA market, too—there's as much poor writing there as in the CBA market. But ABA is much bigger than the CBA market, has a much larger pool of writers to draw from, and the really good books are outstanding.

Which leads me to a second "one thing most lacking," in the CBA industry: we need writers who can stretch to write more imaginatively, more expansively about the world at large. I'd like to see fiction as creative as Life of Pi. We have some quality contemporary fiction, especially by authors like Ann Tatlock, Lisa Samson, and Dale Cramer. But much of what I see is bland and dull. How many novels on marital infidelity and reconciliation do we really need?

FiF: What's the strongest thing about the CBA book industry?
LW: Our Christian faith is our greatest strength. When it’s authentically, creatively, well-portrayed in fiction, we have a wonderful means of sharing a transcendent hope and faith with readers. That can be done through good, entertaining genre fiction or literary fiction.

FiF: Must CBA publishers compromise on the religious content of their books to be taken seriously in the general market?
LW: Not at all. Good fiction doesn't need to be compromised. If publishers feel the need to tweak religious content in a novel, then maybe it wasn't written as well as it should have been in the first place. A preachy tone turns off readers in both markets.

FiF: Must CBA publishers break long-standing content "rules" about sex, swearing, and "sin" in general to be taken seriously in the general market?
LW: I think the primary thing CBA publishers need to do to be taken seriously in the general market is to publish quality fiction. I'm not dodging the issue—certainly our industry has played it too safe in tackling real-life issues realistically. But good books don't rely on using offensive language, sex, and violence to sell. To think it's a requirement to include these things in order to succeed in the general market is to sell that market short.

FiF: What would you expect retailer's response would be to any book/publisher that pushed those boundaries?
LW: Retailers feel responsible to their customers. Some may champion books that push boundaries if they feel they have an important message and are excellent reads. But most, if not all, will probably draw the line at books with swearing and explicit sex. As for sin in general, the need for redemption is the primary theme in Christian fiction. It shouldn’t concern readers or retailers that characters sin—or even that conversions may take time, more time than can be conveyed in one novel. But does it take swearing or explicit sex scenes to convey the reality of sin? I doubt it.

FiF: Do you think a publisher's obligation is to the loudest complaining customer, other customers who may like a provocative work, retailers caught in between, or the novel and its message?
LW: How about all of the above? The loud customer may speak for many, as may the customers who like provocative novels. Christian retailers juggle business with ministry—and take their responsibility to customers seriously. They're on the frontlines of customer approval or wrath and are sensitive to customer feedback. But a novel's integrity and message are important. I suppose you need the wisdom of Solomon to address the varying demands.

FiF: How has the market changed in your time working in Christian fiction?
LW: Peretti, LaHaye and Jenkins, Francine Rivers, Oprah, all helped to change the market. Oprah did a lot to educate readers to fiction that transcended genres. Peretti's titles elbowed aside the reigning romance fiction and opened the door to suspense and supernatural thrillers. LaHaye and Jenkins, of course, brought apocalyptic fiction to the attention of the general market and boosted readership in general. Rivers and other general-market writers crossed over to the Christian market and have helped elevate the quality of writing. Publishers are allocating far more money and resources to building their fiction lines than they ever did before.

FiF: What would you like to see from CBA fiction in the next three to five years?
LW: I'd like to see it grow in diversity and depth.

FiF: What's your favorite novel or two that tackles issues of faith? LW: Leif Enger's Peace Like a River portrays a loving father’s sacrifice to save his prodigal son, Elizabeth Goudge's Dean's Watch explores humility and marital fidelity that perseveres despite all odds, Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward Angel eloquently shows man’s ineffectual striving to return to a pre-sin state, and C.S. Lewis' Perelandra chillingly depicts the horror of evil and shows the necessity of grappling with it. I could go on

Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Day 2: An Interview with Jana Riess of Publishers Weekly

Jana Riess majored in religion at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, then earned a master of divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. She received a Ph.D. in American religious history from Columbia University, where she focused on the history of nineteenth-century sectarian movements such as Mormonism, Shakerism, and Christian Science. She is the author of What Would Buffy Do?: The Vampire Slayer as Spiritual Guide and The Spiritual Traveler: Boston and New England, and also edited a volume of Mary Baker Eddy’s autobiographies.

Since 1999, she has been the Religion Book Review Editor for Publishers Weekly magazine, and is frequently interviewed by the media on trends in religion and publishing. She has been a Christy Award judge since 2002.

FiF: If I say “Christian fiction,” what is your gut response?
JR: Well, at the moment, I still have all of the Christy nominees to read, so my first response is guilt when I see them on the shelves. Guilt, guilt, guilt. But on a normal day, my gut response would be fairly positive overall.

Some Christians find that the term “Christian fiction” is too broad for the genre as it is currently defined. They’d like to see the moniker be more specific, like “evangelical Christian fiction” or “CBA fiction.” I think that “CBA” is a term for people within the industry; ordinary readers aren’t necessarily going to know what that means. But “evangelical Christian fiction” seems a very fair term for novels that seek to proclaim the gospel, or evangelion.

FiF: If you could change one thing about the CBA Fiction books you read or come across, what would it be?
JR: I would like the novels to be more character-driven and less preachy. The worst are the novels that exist only to spew forth propaganda – about evolution, about abortion, about embattled evangelicals, whatever. No one who doesn’t already agree with the author wants to be bashed over the head with his or her tiresome agenda. It’s not just religious conservatives who do this. I hate it when liberals do it too—don’t even get me started about The Da Vinci Code! Whenever it happens, it interrupts the story as surely as if there had been a commercial break. And me without my Tivo.

Novels cannot be hijacked by the author’s agenda. As Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn once said, “If you have a story, see me. If you have a message, go to Western Union.” Amen.

Having said that, though, there is definitely a place for a novel to have a POV; otherwise why write one? The problem with some Christian novels is that the authors are simply not skilled enough to allow the gospel message to be seen through the characters and the themes. They tell us, and don’t show us, the message. Ultimately, this is insulting for us as readers, because it means that the author doesn’t trust our intelligence (and the author’s own writing ability) enough to allow the story to simply stand on its own.

FiF: One complaint at our publishing house is that when we have a book we think can stand with any fiction out there, it’s still reviewed as CBA Fiction. Is that ever likely to change?
JR:Yes—the proof is in the pudding. Once reviewers and critics begin to see that there are Jamie Langston Turners out there, and Vinita Hampton Wrights, they will eventually pay attention. It’s only in the last few years that the CBA has offered writers of that caliber, so it will take a while before the “secular” world (if there is such a thing) takes notice. There is literary fiction in the CBA, and some of it is quite good.

At PW, we review all fiction together in the same section, religious and secular.

FiF: One area Christian publishing is FAR behind in is honest criticism by outside sources. How important is the environment of review and critique (in Sunday Book Review, Atlantic Monthly, Christian Science Monitor and many others) in general market publishing both for promoting titles and improving the books?
JR:You’re right—and please remember the importance of honest outside criticism if one of your books ever gets a negative review in PW. ;-) Some of the publications that review Christian books are not very rigorous in their evaluation, and that’s a shame. Honest outside criticism has the potential to be a constructive force in the improvement of the whole genre.

One of the problems nowadays is that many newspapers and magazines are cutting or contracting their Sunday book review sections. There are fewer spaces for review, yet more books are being published than ever before. It’s a terrible squeeze.

Reviews are as important as ever. PW’s reviews are now posted directly on various websites like Amazon and bn.com, so our reviews now go straight to the book consumer.

FiF: Must CBA publishers break long-standing content “rules” about sex, swearing, and “sin” in general to be taken seriously in the general market?
JR: No, there’s no need. A great story transcends all of those formulaic concerns. In the mid-1990s, one of the surprise film hits with audiences and critics alike was the movie Babe. It was imaginative, unique, and based in a great story. And the only nudity was the farm animals.

Working within certain boundaries is actually helpful to some writers. It can inspire their creativity.

On the other hand, writers should be careful about trying to sugarcoat the pain of life. Many, but not all, great stories arise from painful circumstances. And of course, in the world of Christian publishing it’s ironic that novelists can preach about the transforming grace of Jesus but have to be incredibly circumspect about honestly describing what Jesus is saving people from. It’s a recipe for creating the kind of “let-me-tell-you-and-not-show-you” stories that are so plodding and forgettable.

FiF: Must CBA publishers compromise on the religious content of their books to be taken seriously in the general market?
JR: Why should they? Chaim Potok doesn’t. He just explores religion is such a way that it fuels the power of his words and characters. When you read My Name is Asher Lev and The Gift of Asher Lev, you see that those stories reveal biblical archetypes. But Potok never says, “Hey! Did you get it that Asher Lev is Abraham and the son he has to sacrifice to the rebbe is Isaac? That’s from Genesis, you know!” He trusts his readers. This trust in turn allows them to engage with the story in deeper ways—it’s BYO Subtext. The religious and moral content are so strong that those books make me weep. But it’s also true that every time I read them I learn something new, and engage them on a different level because of where I am in my life. That’s what great literature is supposed to do.

FiF: Have you seen any noticeable shift and change in the quality of the books coming from CBA publishers over the last five years?
JR: Yes, the quality of CBA fiction has clearly improved. In terms of breadth, we have more genres and subgenres than ever before, so readers can find romantic suspense, mystery, chick lit, sci fi . . . whatever suits their tastes. We’re also starting to see some authors experiment with a little more depth. Last year I was impressed with Athol Dickson’s thriller They Shall See God. That novel is evidence that even “genre fiction” can have an original plot, memorable characters and interesting ruminations on faith. It’s by no means a perfect book, but it’s a very good thriller. I don’t think that would have been published in the CBA ten years ago.

FiF: What’s your favorite novel or two that tackles issues of religious faith?
JR: I’ve already mentioned Chaim Potok. I’d add Madeleine L’Engle and Frederick Buechner to my short list of religious writers who speak to me. When I read novels, of course I am sometimes looking for escapist entertainment. But when I want spiritual meat and not milk, there are few novelists who make me think as much as those three.