f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 04/01/2004 - 05/01/2004

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

Friday, April 30, 2004

Once More With Feeling: Where Do We Go From Here?

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer shout-out to start today’s post. For those of you who’ve never seen a television drama attempt a musical episode, if you can track down the show above, it’s worth a viewing.

Anyway, the question posed is: where do we go from here? This is Day 4 in our discussion of reading and I’d like to up the ante a little. It’s not enough to just blather on about it. We need to be reading each others’ work.

See, here’s the thing. I am a writer and I know, from many workshop experiences, that the most exciting day is the time when your own work is discussed. We live for that feedback. Writing is our true passion and we want to always be moving forward with it. Still, I think we need to see the imperative need for readers…and we need to fill that role.

So, why I’m trying to figure out is how people are going to do that in their own lives. Are most of you currently involved in writers groups elsewhere? It may not seem like it through comments but readership of this journal continues to increase daily. I don’t know if a larger, more efficient system of communication would increase interaction.

What I’m most interested in: Are you, as writers, interested in establishing a small critique group linked to this site? For that, you’d have to be willing to play the part of readers too, but it’d be a place where writers who share the same vision for the future of Christian fiction would engage each other, not philosophically as we are doing now, but with each others’ actual words.

I’ll be honest: that’s my vision for this site. I’m excited about the possibility of creating a place that provides encouragement and practical help for writers. I’m excited about seeing an idea workshopped for a few months and polished into a story we’d consider for publication. That’s not going to just happen overnight though. I need to know if you all are interested or if your creative commitments lie elsewhere. Feel free to chime in through comments or to me directly.

And have a good weekend!

Thursday, April 29, 2004

(in Willy Nelson or Julio Iglesias voice) To All the Readers I've Loved Before

I took five “creative writing: fiction” courses at Penn State. I had five different instructors. Today I thought I’d talk a little about my experiences as a novice writer and the things I liked/disliked about those classes. None of the five classes was remotely similar so we can examine each as a type and talk about the human side of reading/writing. All names, except mine, are changed to protect the innocent.

Instructor 1 – “Fiona”: I took this class, Introduction to Fiction Writing, my second semester. I’d guess the class had about 20 students. We each wrote and workshopped 2 short stories. Cleaning out the attic the other week, I came across one of the stories I wrote for this class. Painful, painful reading. I just shake my head.

Fiona was one of those nebulous “adjunct” or “associate” professors who help fill in the freshman/sophomore level classes at big schools. To be honest, what I remember most about her is that my stories would smell of patchouli when she handed them back. Overall, I’d say she played the part of advocate. We were 18/19 years old and pouring our souls onto the page. She did her best to help us see the quiet moments of honesty in the midst of our (my) pretentiousness, pointed out our major construction problems, and generally encouraged us to keep expressing ourselves. Pretty much what a non-tenured, introductory fiction instructor should do. I guess.

My classmates were less kind. And rightly so. I got hammered in that class like never before, mostly for a medieval gothic story involving a Humpty-Dumptyish boy and an insane chef. (the horror, the horror). It was the awakening my writing needed and from that wondrous instant I, a burgeoning artist soul alight, cast off the shackles of self-importance and devoted myself in staid humility to a writing void of affectation and artifice. It’s worked out well.

BTW: this was also the class I learned that it’s not “for all intensive purposes” but rather “for all intents and purposes.”

Instructor 2 – “Charles”: Junior year, fall semester. Advance Fiction Writing. 15-18 students. Again, 2 short stories.

Charles was the guy who broke through to me. A graduate of the Iowa workshop, he and I just had similar visions for what short fiction should do. I loved attending the class and I still remember a number of things he told us.

One thing was that we should stop trying to recreate scenes from our life in our stories. Rather we should try to take the emotion from the scene—the joy, the sorrow, whatever—and transfer it into a new setting, to fuel a new experience. I liked that. Charles also tried to get us to see that we needed to be writing for our characters—letting them dictate our story rather than control it ourselves. Good, solid instruction.

The interesting thing is that I never read a single thing the guy wrote. He was about as close as I’ve come to a writing mentor and yet I never tracked anything down. Didn’t seem to matter at the time.
One story from this class, “The Art of Packing Boxes” ended up taking the top fiction prize for the university that year. It was about a middle-aged man confronted by the belongings of his deceased estranged father and his sudden awareness of how he’s partitioned off portions of his life. My classmates were bored by it.

Instructor 3 – “Sylvia”: Junior year, spring semester. Honors Fiction writing. 12 students. Two short stories.

Lovely woman was Sylvia, and a talented author. Mediocre teacher at best. In this class, there were four or five other students with impressive talent and I valued their feedback far more than my instructors. I don’t know what the problem was. It always seemed like she found fault with minor issues that were too easily fixed whereas my classmates got to the meat of the story. This goes to show that writing talent does not translate into reading prowess. Overall, a disappointing experience.

At this time of school I was simply steeped in the literary arts. I was an editor for our literary journal and was hosting literary readings at coffee houses. Like I’ve mentioned before it’s always easier to pass your own work through committee when your el Presidente. My best friends typically weren’t part of the literary scene and always taken a bit aback when they attended these things. I soon won them over with my readings of a story whose first scene ends with an ailing basset hound retching all over the porch.

Instructor 4 – “Gavin”: Senior year, spring semester. This class had some fancy name which basically meant it met once a week for three hours straight. 20 students, two short stories.

Gavin published one piece of experimental fiction in his career. I tried to read it, but it was beyond me. He was actually a Ph.D. rather than an M.F.A. though and got by with the department by writing a number of papers and monographs. Gavin was eccentric and either vaguely lycanthropic or vampiric, tearing into your stories with a pen that seemed to drip blood with its red ink. Gavin taught me two things: 1) I wasn’t nearly as good as I thought I was. and 2) Hard work could make me better.

We all need a Gavin in our writing lives, because to be frank, we’re simply not that good. He was honest and clinical in his assessment of our writing. But, he was treating us as writers. We weren’t students any longer. That felt both empowering and like ice-cold water at the same time. Probably the most important class I took at Penn State, though.

One of my stories, which I’m still tempted to revisit, tries to use the gathering spots of animals (monarch butterflies, spawning frogs) as a metaphor. I’m still not sure for what, though.

Instructor 5 – “Ken”: Senior year. Spring semester. Senior Honors thesis advisor.

This was a debacle on the grandest scale. We had 3 fiction creative writing professors at one time at Penn State. I needed to find a thesis advisor before I signed up for the class. Gavin wouldn’t take me because I hadn’t yet been his student. Charles, who I truly wanted, was on sabbatical. I couldn’t imagine having Sylvia and so I went to the newly hired Ken. Scrambling to find his place and get grounded in the department, he agreed.

The one nice thing about the experience was that I proved to myself that I could do this writing thing on my own. Ken and I just didn’t talk much. And when we did, it was mostly with odd expressions on our faces as though the other person were speaking, say, Swahili. I didn’t get him. He didn’t get me. He left my writing alone (except to suggest a change in title to one of my stories) and the whole package ended up winning the Honors award for creative thesis.

This was the experience that showed me that short fiction probably wasn’t going to cut it. Most stories students turned in were 8-12 pages. The two stories I turned in for my thesis were 25 and 60 pages respectively. And thus was born a novelist.

I think what Ken proves is that, in the end, there are going to be people who just don’t get what you’re doing. They’re not bad people (though I’ve never managed to pick up one of Ken’s books); they’re just missing you. And that’s fine. Just try not to have them be responsible for the culmination of your college career. It’ll go better for you.

Wednesday, April 28, 2004

Eight Aspects of a Good Reader

Let’s take the Proverbs 31 approach by spelling out the characteristics that make a good reader. Find these traits in a person in your small-group and you should hold on to them dearly. Feel free to chime in with your own suggestions. I’ve ranked these in the order that they are most important to me—your own needs as a writer and a person might require a different order.

1. Honest – This is the core trait and should be first for everybody. As writers, we need to hear the truth about our work. Platitudes and fuzzy feelings will get us and our work nowhere. As readers, we need to respond honestly to whatever is put in front of us. As Americans, we’ve moved so far from honest critique that apparently we need to import people from Britain to be frank with us. Honesty doesn’t equal mean, however.

2. Discerning - “I didn’t like it.” “Really? Why not?” I don’t know.” That’s honest, but not helpful. Discernment in this case is the ability to provide useful feedback that we can use to make our piece better. It’s an informed response that states what was communicated to a writer. As I’ve mentioned before, as writers we only control what we intend to say. How it comes out is interpreted by our readers. Discernment is idiosyncratic though. Three readers may have three different responses. That’s why multiple readers are best. Discernment also implies an understanding of story, if only intuitively. “I didn’t like that part because it was slow. I felt this character wasn’t fleshed out enough.”

3. Well-Read - This discernment needs to come from somewhere, and I think it mainly comes from previous reading. The more books a person reads, the more they have to weigh against. This can be problematic in that their expectations are super-high (these people tend to be overly critical) but at least they have a basis for their feelings. In the same vein, this can be genre specific. You’re most likely to get help for your mystery novel from one who knows the genre well.

4. Tactful - We all need to develop thick skins as writers. That said, readers need to be aware that these words on a page represent much more than just that. As writers, we’re invested in them. Speak the truth in love.

5. Open-Minded - We all have our likes and dislikes as readers. If we’re reading in critique-setting—be it in a writers group or even for a throw-away opinion on Amazon—we need to realize that our not liking something doesn’t mean its bad. The ability to find worth in something that isn’t necessarily our cup-of-tea shows humility. It’s an especially important trait for editors, I think, who often acquire works they might not otherwise read.

6. Thorough - I read fast. That’s a fine and useful trait to have as an editor. It lets me cover a lot of ground quickly when I need to and helps me plow through stacks of work. It’s less helpful in the actual “work” of improving manuscript. For that, slow and steady wins the race.

7. Creative - This probably should be higher. Creativity means taking discernment to the next step. Not just pointing out a chapter isn’t working, but suggesting a fix. “Creative editing” is NOT the same as writing, though. It takes a writers’ understanding of construction and craft, but it’s practiced with humility. Enger’s concerns surface here. As writers, we want things to carry our stamp, our voice. We might give suggestions that aren’t in tune with the spirit of the piece. I’ll say too that this is the part that freaks out a lot of writers when they hand over their manuscripts before publication. I can’t make that process easier for you. I can only suggest that your editors need latitude to be creative. If you fight against that too much, your work will suffer.

8. Encouraging - Finally, a good reader should spur you on. If they like your work, they should demand to read more. If they have problems with your work they should challenge you to improve. A good reader isn’t wearied by the sheer bulk of bad writing. Instead, he sees a future where struggling writers find their voice, learn their craft after years possibly of hard work, and turn in something that makes all their time worth while.
Go to Day 2 of our discussion of being a good reader.

Random: Interesting link and book related to vision impairment

Okay, so this is just random, but I've found this to be a highly interesting blog. It's about becoming a guide dog instructor.

In the same vein, the book Slackjaw by Jim Knipfel is a darkly humorous memoir by a man with retinitis pigmentosa. The hard cover version had an amazing dust jacket with raised letters you could only see in certain light that said, "You better start learning braille now," words spoken to Knipfel as a boy by a not-so-very avuncular uncle.

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

This Just In! Leif Enger Warns of Nefarious Writers Group Subterfuge

Leif Enger, who lives in a quaint suburb of Middle-of-Nowhere, Minnesota, raised a few eyebrows in a talk at the Festival of Faith and Writing with his answer to a question about writing communities. Mr. Enger was asked how he found community in writing. He said he didn’t. He thought if he lived in Minneapolis he might, but for the time he did without. He went on to say that sometimes “writers groups” weren’t quite the boon everyone makes them out to be. They breed competition and ego and can often lead to situations where your group isn’t looking out for your best interest as a writer.

I’m sure all the writers groups who journeyed to the festival together liked hearing that and I can only guess at the many suspicious glances that were shared on busrides home.

Enger has a point, I suppose, though I think he overstates the menace of writers groups. Knowing many Christians, I think most might suffer from a lack of useful criticism. Besides, competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing and if someone’s trying to submarine your work either you ask them to stop, get them to quit, or take your writing elsewhere.

The point Enger didn’t speak to (and to be fair, this was a cast-off comment by the man, he didn’t dwell on the issue) is the problem inherent in the very name: writer’s group. Say you have eight people in the group. Well, at any given time, do you know how many should be acting as writers? One. The rest should be acting as readers. But the reading isn’t the important part to us. It’s the writing we focus on—our self-expression.

I said this in an earlier post: Anyone who calls a writer “humble” doesn’t understand the very nature of writing itself. There is an intrinsic arrogance to putting words to paper (or web page, thank you) and then trying to have them read. (And let me step forward, raise my hand, and go Pauline by saying, “I am the most arrogant of all. I’ve written two novels and I keep a daily blog. I’m one magazine column away from being the Ryan Seacrest of the literary world.”) The arrogance that impels us to write is not a bad thing. In fact, I should probably stop using the word arrogance because of its heavily negative connotations. Still, it’s a focus on the self that can become too consuming. In conversation, a person who only speaks is considered self-absorbed, a motor-mouth with no time for anyone else…known elsewhere as a “Bill O’Reilly.” The “conversation” of writers is much more stilted, shared over weeks not seconds and it’s far easier to just “talk.”

Our goal is to learn how to turn our “reading” into “listening.” (Man, that sounds like Dr. Phil.) We’re going to try to become good readers who are available not only to listen to the words of those at whose feet we sit (great authors with published books) but those with whom we are equals. (You, me, and everyone else at this blog.)

I think this touchy-feely garbage has been sparked by my mom not reading a poem I wrote as a six-year-old. She just glanced at it, wiped the excess Elmers off her hands, picked up the silver glitter macaroni that dropped to the floor, and shrugged with anhedonic pity. It tore my heart apart. I’ve never recovered.*

And that’s why I want to be a good reader for you all. I take this editing business pretty seriously. I need to think through what you all need as writers (besides a timely response which has been my nemesis so far) and how to approach the business—and it is a business—of reading professionally.

If this works, I think we’ll be in a better place to begin moving forward as a community of writers who are readers. WWAR! Like Susan Sarandon with a stutter.

*100% tangential fabrication. A good editor would've stripped this part out.
Go to Day 3 of our discussion of being a good reader.

Monday, April 26, 2004

Live…From the Southwest Corner of the Bethany House Building!

Boy, one weekend in Michigan makes Minnesota look…a lot like Michigan. Replace maroon and gold with maize and blue and you still have a big group of pitiable Big Ten fans who have nothing on the navy and white of my beloved Nittany Lions.

I return to Minneapolis having had a very nice time at the Festival of Faith and Writing. If you’ve the means and inclination for such a thing, I’d highly recommend that you keep tabs on the event for its 2006 incarnation. From the sessions I attended and the reports from many others, it seems to be more than worth than money, if you can spare the time and cover the costs of travel. Plus, we could meet then. And that’d be nice.

To those of you stopping by after having spoken with me or stopped by the Baker booth, I say hello. Browse around. Say “Hi.” Send an email. Hopefully we can continue many of the conversations and much of the discourse brought up by the Festival.

So this week, I thought we’d talk about the unmentioned side of the conference. It’s called the Festival of Faith and Writing…but what EVERYONE had in common wasn’t our writing but our status as readers. With all the hullabaloo about putting pen to paper and finding a publisher for that paper once it’s filled, I think we skip too lightly over the notion and importance of also being a reader.

In May I’m giving a lecture on developing our reading skills and so this is going to be a topic near to my heart. So let’s spend some time on it this week and see where it takes us.

A few more random thoughts and observations from the Festival of Faith and Writing.

Silas House (who sounds like he should be a character in a book rather than an author) said this about why there may be so many Southern writers: “When you have to defend where you’re from, you end up being proud of where you’re from.”

WordFarm, which I mentioned the other day, can be found here.

NavPress is going to get into Christian fiction. So add them to the list of publishers in that big tour we just took.

Grand Rapids is home to Eerdmans, Kregel, Zondervan, and Baker Books. Those Dutchmen sure like their Christian books.

There are few places quieter than a college campus at 9:00am on a Saturday morning.

Saturday, April 24, 2004

A quick note from Grand Rapids

Yesterday, had an opportunity to hear an interview with Leif Enger of Peace Like a River fame. Hearing authors speak is often hit-or-miss for me. Quite often, authors I love just don't impress me "live" and I find myself looking at their books a little different.

In this case, I'm one of the few who wasn't completely in love with Peace Like a River, yet I very much enjoyed the man and his interaction in this interview. Actually makes me want to pick up the book again.

A quote I enjoyed in response to why his characters didn't necessarily attend church in the novel. Enger said, "God is endlessly interesting. Church is not always so interesting."

As well, Enger said in the process of writing he's discovered that he can't truly commit to characters or find them authentic if he doesn't know how and where they were raised. This backstory, which often never makes it close to the book, is the kind of thinking that many of us may need to do if we're stuck in a particular spot or unhappy with a particular character.

Enger was quite down to earth about his writing and his life. He sounds like a very intuitive writer and manged to contradict many of the dearly-held myths about literature and writing. Good stuff.

Thursday, April 22, 2004

Live from the Festival of Faith and Writing

As luck/chance/providence would have it, there's a web terminal just outside the exhibition hall and I've been able to grab ten minutes to come a type something.

I don't have any wonderful grand insight into things. It's a conference. People with a passion for writing and books and God and Jesus have gathered at Calvin College to try and figure some things out. Bret Lott gave a keynote address on Christian literature. I just attended a talk by Vinita Hampton Wright (she wrote Velma Still Cooks in Leeway on the creative process.

Her key point was to stress a self-awareness that we need to develop as writers to understand how we, individually, write. We need to understand what inspires us, what blocks us, and what can jolt us to action. It's not ground-shaking, but it's well-worth knowing.

The creative process is too often thought of as a grand mystery and we simply can't afford to treat it with such reverence or we'll be a slave to it. Neither should we completely control the process to the point where inspiration and mystery are meaningless. The balance between the two is the place where writers can thrive and their art will flourish.

A few quotes:

"Your first draft will never be good enough." Amen to that.

A few other observations from the conference:

Image and Seattle Pacific are moving forward with their MFA program. It's a limited residency degree. More information looks to be forthcoming.

Got to meet some folks from a new publisher called WordFarm. It's cool to see what people are doing in the industry. I wish them luck and will pass on some more information as I gather it.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Day 3 of Godric—Seeing Angels

This is going to be a short entry. I'm traveling today, on my way to Grand Rapids for the Festival of Faith and Writing. To be quite honest, I have no idea of what to predict for entries over the next few days. I'd love to post a few thoughts but am hampered by not knowing precisely what technology will be available to me to complete such interactions. All I'll say is, if it's possible, you'll hear from me. Otherwise, I'll be back on Monday with a full report.

Let's talk about the supernatural for a moment, shall we? I'm assuming if you have any kind of orthodox Christian belief, you allow for the possibility of miracles. Our lives can be interrupted by the "impossible" because we worship a God who is all-powerful and omniscient and omnipresent. At the same time, he's created beings who operate not on a physical plane but on a spiritual one, who from time to time, come visiting on his command. (Or come crashing down after getting thrown out.)

What place do angels and the supernatural have in fiction? Godric has two such encounters that shape his life and eventually help lead him to faith. I've always been troubled by this kind of catalyst for change however. After all, what does it teach us—those of us who don't see angels?

My point isn't to ignore the supernatural, but I would warn against making these moments the point of transformation. Or, at least be aware of the consequences in that such life change may not have quite the impact on readers as it does to your character.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Day 2 of Godric - Is Swearing in Arcane English Still Swearing?

I don’t understand all of Shakespeare. I know stuff goes over my head. That said, I guarantee I understand about 95% more at the end of Act I than I do within the first few lines. The same thing even happens if I see a movie spoken in English but with a heavy accent or dialect. It simply takes me time to adjust, time to get into the rhythm and flow of the language. This pattern holds for Godric.

I’ve no idea where Buechner derived his “voice” in the story. I’d think manuscripts written in the 12th-century would be well-near unintelligible to us at this point. Instead, he concocts his own parlance for Godric, mimicking the complicated syntax and throwing in a parcel of unusual idioms to make it sound authentic. For me, it works. It was intelligible but you had to work at it enough that it didn’t seem anachronistically modern. So many of our historical novels fall into that trap. We have Bible characters speaking with 21st-Century voices. Drives me nuts.

All that to say, I spun my wheels at the beginning of the story and missed, the first time around, the fact that Mr. Buechner makes it quite clear on the first page that he has not written a CBA novel. Yes, we’ve entered the dread realm of “appropriate language” again. It’s an argument without foreseeable resolution, its two camps entrenched firmly across from one another, stalemated.

The book begins with Godric talking of his friends, of which two, he claims, were snakes named Tune and Fairweather. I admit to getting stuck on these two friends, thinking them to be actual friends who turn out, later in the story, to be the villains or betrayers. Nope. They’re actual snakes. The hissing kind. And while they may have some historical or symbolic significance, my time trying to turn them into humans distracted me greatly from the fact that Mr. Godric doesn’t mince words much, especially around topics we might otherwise be coy about today.

Seinfeld, which mastered the art of talking about something without actually saying the words, once tackled the topic of cold water and “shrinkage” and Godric is more direct.

“I spied [the snakes] now and then, puddling my way home like a drowned man from dark Wear with my ballocks shriveled to beansize in their sack and old One-eye scarce a barnacle’s length clear of my belly and crying a-mercy. It was him as I sought in freezing Wear to teach a lesson that he never learned nor has to this day learned….
My point here isn’t to titter over anatomy descriptions (although this passage brings back terrible memories of falling through the ice of a stream into water up to my chest) it’s to merely point and show how one Christian artist took his stand.

Buechner’s Godric is living in a time, assumably, immune to today’s FCC-upheld prudishness. There’s no disassociation from our bodies that we’re able to achieve today. In fact, for a holy hermit living in the woods, the very functioning of the body is #2 on the list of topics, right under the thought life that may very well cause said body to betray you. (Hence poor Godric trying to shock his privates into submission.) Buechner creates a setting, creates a character and the language follows. It’s natural, it’s not overly done, and it’s usually wrapped in enough idiom that you can simply ignore should you choose.

We typically don’t have such a luxury, especially if we’re writing contemporary stories. Sure we can wrap sex up in innuendo, but that might be worse or more prudish than refusing to mention it at all. In the end, the choice really shouldn’t even be yours. Your characters should speak for themselves. The language they use should emerge from who they are. That said, you’ll need to be prepared for the consequences should what they say run to blue. There’s a good chance an editor will ask you to change or strike such language. And then it’ll be your turn to choose a camp. And the long stalemate will claim another pointless victim.

The Midnight Disease

This article talks about the drive to write and reviews a recent book that explores the neurological, and sometimes pathological, part the brain plays in writing. Thanks to Jordon Cooper's website for the intial link.

Monday, April 19, 2004

Day 1 of Godric - Even Evangelical Fiction Authors Need a Patron Saint

In 1981, Godric was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and lost to a dead guy, namely John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces which is one of those books that I put in the category of “read it too young” along with Warren’s All the Kings’s Men, Austen’s Emma, and Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. These are all books of which I know I turned every page and yet remember only very little. But that’s neither here nor there.

Godric and its author, Frederick Buechner, are roundly hailed as being a shining example of the intersection of art and faith. Lots of authors and readers I know rave about Buechner and going in I was a bit worried. Very often, such hype only leads to disappointment. Thankfully, that wasn’t the case with this novel. I enjoyed it very much and recommend it without reservation to all readers who journey here. In fact, I would recommend reading it sooner than later because of its high-ranking place in the canon of discourse on the topic of faith and fiction. It’s just one of those touchstone pieces of art that’s helpful to be familiar with.

What you don’t know about it perhaps is that it’s a 12th-century Tuesdays With Morrie. Take one very old hermit/holy man, add in one young monk writing down the man’s life and you have Godric. Only you have so much more.

The aspect I want to talk about today is the idea of hagiography.

Hagiography comes from the Greek word “agios” meaning holy and literally means a “story of holiness.” It’s the common term for any life of a saint and also has the connotation of being decidedly uncritical.

Godric is not a hagiography. Instead, it’s told, through flashback, in the first-person and seeks to tell the truth rather than let what the monk Reginald writes down become gospel.

The interesting part is that Godric was a real guy. Buechner picks a true life saint (see here for a encapsulated biography) and sees the man underneath the holiness. What we get in the course of the novel is both the path of one man’s life and also what amounts to his final confession. Godric has lived too long to be worried about false modesty at this point—he simply wants to unburden himself before death. To be free from the sins of his past he’s never been able to let go.

The last chapter of the book is the only told outside the first person. Godric is died and Reginald has picked up the story for what amounts to an epilogue. This is what he says:
“When at the instigation of Abbot Ailred of Rievaulx, of blessed memory, I initially undertook to record this history, [Godric] made violent objection, reviling himself most passionately and reciting in multitudinous detail the sins of his youth. He aspired thereby to demonstrate his unworthiness of any such biographical endeavor, but his better judgment at last prevailed, and in the end he gave his blessing to this work. This I set it forth now in confidence that the world will be greatly edified by the example of this most estimable man.”
Reginald’s tact to do this is to simply smooth the rough edges, skip the saucier moments, and transform every sin into virtue. He’s one of those eminently smackable people who tells you that a “frown is just a smile upside down.”

And you know what? I can think of nobody better to serve as the patron saint of CBA. (Even if he’s a fiction of Buechner’s imagination.)

Our stories are not novels of true life. They are in their own way, hagiographies. We pretend our characters have blemishes or flaws, but they are cosmetic. Fixed up in a jiffy toward the end of the book without need for even Extreme Makeover or The Swan to intervene. We don’t have heroes however who are revealed as deeply sinful or willing to be shockingly honest. Which is strange, because so far as I know, each of us is deeply sinful. Our thoughts betray us, even if our bodies or words don’t. We’re just not willing as artists to hold up that mirror. (Which may say something about our own lack of awareness about the depths of our own sin. A troubling thought.)

So we have our choice. We can be content with the poor reflection in the dark glass. Content to pray to the statue of St. Reginald the Bland—who can turn Godric into Morrie—or we can pray that our dark glass goes clear for a moment and that we can truly see, no matter how painful, the truth of who we are. And then revel all the more in the grace afforded us through Jesus that such reflections don’t find their way to heaven.

Another Recommended Film

I didn't see this film this weekend. I saw it months ago. Maybe even six months ago. For some reason this weekend, it came back to me, hard and strong. It's called Heaven and stars Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi. Directed at a very different pace by the guy who did Run, Lola, Run and written by Krzysztof Kieslowski of the Three Colours Trilogy (Red, White,, and Blue), it's a meditation on the grace we can offer each other here on earth. Blanchett owns the screen throughout the film and there's some lovely scenery.

Another P.O.V. - First-person Plural

I hadn't even thought of this one. The NYTimes Sunday Book Review (requires free registration, but well-worth it) has an article about stories told, not from the "I" perspective but from the "We" pov. Worth reading.

Friday, April 16, 2004

Day 5 of Our Publishing Tour: Periodicals and Web

We’ve reached the last day of our tour. Blogger and Blogspot conspired for a day to keep all this vital information from reaching you but we persevere.

In Christian publishing there are basically only a handful of magazine publishing groups to know for their relevance to fiction authors.

Strang Communications who we mentioned yesterday publishing Christian Retailing. The rest of their line of magazines are more Christian life including New Man, Charisma, Spirit-Led Woman, and Vida Christian.

Christianity Today International publishes, duh, Christianity Today. They also release Campus Life, Leadership, Today’s Christian Woman, and Marriage Partnership. As well, they publish Books and Culture a bi-monthly journal with an academic flavor that covers mostly non-fiction but does provide the occasional fiction review. It’s an excellent periodical though.

Relevant is out on its own, but has strong connections to Strang, as Cameron Strang and his sister run Relevant. Their coverage of fiction has been minimal, but their awareness and engagement with today’s culture may be unmatched for its, well, relevance.

For literary journals, I keep mentioning Image and also Mars Hill Review.

On the multi-media side of things there’s Salem Communications who published CCM, owns radio stations nationwide, and also has the Salem Web Network, of which CCM Online, Crosswalk.com, and The Fish are a part.

Finally there are a million-and-one web ventures up that tackle faith and fiction. The best place to search out interesting sites is a fairly comprehensive listing called Sites Unseen. My links are a small list of places I like to visit, but there are millions more out there.

So that’s our tour. Next week we’re back discussing writing and literature. We’ll take a look at Godric by Frederick Buechner and at some point we may very well come to live from the Festival of Faith and Writing.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

Day 4 of Our Publishing Tour—The Industry Itself

Ah, acronyms—our capitalized little friends. Today we’re going to talk about CBA as an industry and an organization…and hopefully nobody searching for the Continental Basketball Association, the Canadian Bar Association, Cheslock, Bakker, and Associates, or the Brilliance China Automotive stock symbol (CBA) will find us accidentally.

CBA stands for Christian Booksellers Association. I don’t think they’re terribly excited about the word “booksellers” in there anymore since stores tend to sell much more than just books, but this thing is decades old by now and there’s not much hope of changing. According to their website, CBA is:

“CBA is the international trade association of Christian retailers and product suppliers. It serves more than 2,500 U.S. member retail stores, and more than 1,000 stores in 40 countries with member chapters in 16 countries. These stores provide Bibles, Christian books, curriculum, apparel, music, videos, gifts, greeting cards, children’s resources, and other materials.

CBA also serves nearly 700 member publishers, record companies, gift companies, and other resource suppliers.”
The host on international conference annually—it’s in lovely Atlanta this year—and some other annual meetings. I believe CBA helps sets standards across the industry for various things (bar codes for instance). They also act in the interest of their member stores, trying to promote retail growth and limit the impact of the major chains.

I’m pretty sure every major publisher in the industry is a member of the CBA. The President/CEO is a gentleman the name of Bill Anderson. His email is right out in the open on the site, which makes me think he probably doesn’t answer it himself.

CBA also publishes a monthly trade journal called CBA Marketplace, one of two trade periodicals in the industry. Marketplace talks about all aspects of the industry, highlights changing times for stores, and does some reviewing of books, CDs, etc. They also publish the bestseller lists. There are an incredible number of categories measured. Worth perusing, if you’ve the time.

Offset from CBA as an organization is ECPA: Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Again, I’ll let them speak for themselves. (Warning: it sounds a lot like the CBA description.)

“The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association is an international, not-for-profit, trade organization serving its industry by promoting excellence and professionalism, sharing relevant data, stimulating Christian fellowship, raising the effectiveness of member houses, and equipping them to meet the needs of the changing marketplace.
They hold their own regional meetings and also provide training sessions for people in the industry. They sponsor the ECPA Gold Medallion Awards—a very nonsensical awards in my opinion, given to books mainly for selling well—and also participate in sales tracking/info. gathering. Pretty much every Christian publisher is a member of this organization too though I can’t specifically say what benefits we reap. Mainly it’s industry awareness.

For more industry awareness there’s also a Society of Christian Editors. They don’t seem to have a webpage but they do have an annual meeting as well, discussing all the topics editors like to talk about—namely what insane person sent in what insane book idea. You think I’m kidding, don’t you?

Finally among industry groups there are two writers guilds. There’s the Christian Writer’s Guild started by Jerry Jenkins. It hosts writers conferences and hooks writers up with “mentors.” You have to pay, but you don’t have to actually be talented to join. They ran some big writing contest a while back offering a $50,000 advance to a first-time novelist, but I never heard the outcome. On a personal note, I tend to be wary of paying to join critique services or submission services but all such choices are up to you.

The other writers guild, ChiLibris is invitation only and requires that authors have published two novels in the CBA industry. They have an annual retreat that coincides with the CBA annual conference. The group is mainly about fellowship and encouragement as we all write our little stories. Yours truly is a member as are many of the novelists you come across in a CBA bookstore as it’s nearly impossible to only publish one book in this industry.

Two more industry related topics to discuss.

First, Christian Retailing. Like Marketplace this is a trade journal. And I just discovered they completely renovated their website. Hallelujah! They other one drove me nuts. CR is published twenty times a year and typically provides a great deal of the same industry coverage as its competitor. It’s owned by the Strang Group (publishers of Charisma, New Man, etc.) In general, they’re seen as the news source of the industry, often getting into the business side of things. Marketplace is more of a trend/retail management magazine that plans its issues and topics pretty far in advance.

Christian Retailing Online offers a free newsletter that you may want to sign up for. It comes out twice a week.

Finally, the Christy Awards. I’ve interviewed Donna Kehoe, who chairs these awards. They were started by a bunch of the ECPA publishers to bring awareness of fiction in front of retailers. Their website is down lots now, so I can’t send you there but there’s now been four years of these awards. They’re given in genre categories of: Contemporary, North American Historical, International Historical, Mystery, Science Fiction, Allegory, Western, Romance, and First Novel. I actually took home one of these for “First Novel.” Much like the Grammy Awards in the same category, winner’s of said award are often never heard from again. :)

The Christy Award finalists (three in each category) will be announced soon. My publishing house has a very strong record for being honored with these awards, taking home about 33% of the awards so far. We’ll see how we fare this year. I don’t think the awards are perfect for a number of reasons, but it’s a good step in providing recognition for books that stand above the crowd a little. And as the quality of writing across the industry improves, the awards will become more meaningful yet.

Here’s a wonderful article written by Andy Crouch of Christianity Today and Books & Culture on serving as a judge for the awards in the contemporary fiction category and having to finish 34 books.

Make Your Opinion Known!

I've changed the font size on the posts. If you really hate it please let me know.

Yeah, But It Quotes Ecclesiastes!

Not my favorite article in recent memory.

New Link, and Interview Worth Visiting

I've added a new link to the list on the right. Godspy is an online journal that takes a look at faith at the edge from a Catholic perspective. It's basically Relevant by way of the Vatican. Pretty interesting. They've got an interview up currently with Gregory Wolfe of Image. Check it out.

Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Day 3 of Our CBA Publishing Tour—Those on the Fringe

Kregel Publishers – They’re really not on the fringe, but I forgot them yesterday. Another publisher based out of Grand Rapids, they have a fairly small fiction line.

The rest of the publishers somehow don’t fit the full, unstated definition of CBA publisher. They typically do some interesting projects or have a more significant general market presence.

Paraclete - This is an ECPA publisher who never is treated as a CBA publisher because their books aim almost exclusively away from the evangelical market. They have a fiction line and are announcing the winner of a “first-novel contest” at the Festival of Faith and Writing.

Doubleday Religion - Though they have mostly nonfiction on their website, I know their intention is to begin building a fiction line. We’ll see how they do and what line is drawn between their books and Waterbrook’s books, who Random House/Doubleday already owns. Doubleday also publishes John Grisham, who can be Christian when he wants to, and Dan Brown who fictionalize Christian history to just this side of blasphemy.

Random House - Technically Random House and Doubleday are owned by the same group, so I don’t know the exact distinction between them, but Random House does their own small amount of Christian publishing. Mostly they pick up the big names who they think can cross boundaries. They paid through the nose for Babylon Rising, Tim LaHaye’s follow-up to Left Behind and also released Davis Bunn’s Great Divide.

Penguin - Penguin/Putnam is a huge publishing group that just happens to be home to one Jan Karon. You’ve probably heard of her. She released them originally with a tiny publisher, but nothing happened with them. Penguin picked them up and Mitford made it to the map. Penguin also did some books with the Thoene’s.

Warner Faith - Warner Books is part of the Time Warner conglomerate that also owns Little, Brown. They publish some fiction including some novels by Patricia Hickman, Lisa Samson, and T.D. Jakes, which put them in the mainstream of CBA. They also have an interesting co-publishing agreement with Walk Worthy Press, publishing house for African-American Christian women.

Ignatius Press - One of the premier Catholic publishers in the country, Ignatius doesn’t get much of a glance from CBA readers, but they do some wonderful books including the Father Brown mysteries by G. K. Chesterton and the works of Michael O’Brien.

Harper San Francisco - Nothing gets evangelicals more in a knot than a publisher like Harper San Francisco who dares to publish “religion and spirituality” books from a wide swath of ideologies. They picked up Phillip Gulley and his Harmony after Multnomah dropped him for saying everyone eventually goes to Heaven. They also publish beloved author Frederick Buechner and I’m sure a lot of other Christian writers who don’t get much face time in CBA stores. HarperCollins the parent company did Lamb, Mr. Ive’s Christmas, Ron Hansen’s fiction, and has Bridge of San Luis Rey in the fold.

Like HarperCollins, most of the major publishers have a handful or even more than a handful of books that fit the bill of faith in fiction. The books are everywhere. The matter is simply to find an editor somewhere who’ll read your work, support it, and pitch it to his publisher with only its success in mind.

I’m that guy here. If you’ve a book idea, contact me and we’ll begin chatting. Otherwise, keep writing and see where the story takes you.

Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Day 2 of Our CBA Publishing Industry Tour—So. Much. Fiction

CBA fiction is seen as a growth industry so perhaps it’s natural that everyone and their uncle Sam wants a piece of the action. The problem is that right now we simply don’t have the line-up of authors to support such ventures. We have many authors who publish multiple (four or five) books a year, often with a variety of publishers. It’s a bad system that leads to a glut of mediocre books.

That’s not to indicate that the publishers that follow publish only mediocre books. We ALL publish our share of mediocre books. I just say it again because you’ll see the sheer volume of fiction departments out there trying to put together catalogs, often from the scraps left over from more popular programs. We’re in a bad cycle and only some spectacular flame-outs or the arrival of more than a handful of talented new artists is going to save the day.

Waterbrook – Our friends at Waterbrook operate out of Colorado Springs. They are owned by Doubleday/Random House, who is turned is owned by German publishing and media giant Bertelsmann.

Waterbrook is newer and working quickly to establish a growing and fairly impressive slate of books and authors. Their fiction is represented by Randy Alcorn, Liz Curtis Higg’s historical novels, and Lisa Samson. They are my sworn enemy after securing a project we hoped to land. I wish them authors with a Caps Lock key that won’t turn off.

Harvest House - Based in Eugene, Oregon, this is a privately-held publisher that’s been a pretty steady gainer in the industry.

They publish Stormie Omartian and Elizabeth George on the nonfiction side. Fiction is represented by mainly by Lori Wick though they have some talented smaller names too.

Cook Communications - Cook is an old publisher dating back to David Cook, which published curriculum. Since then they’ve broadened their sites and now have a number of imprints or divisions in the company, Honor Books, Victor Books, Life Journey, Next Gen, and their fiction imprint RiverOak.

RiverOak, based in Oklahoma, is currently calling themselves that “Christian readers choice for literary fiction.” That’s a bit of a stretch, personally. Perhaps that’s their end goal, but they (and all of us in fact) have a ways to go before we should even bring up the words “literary fiction.”

I’ve heard good things about author Michael Morris. Jack Cavanaugh published with them and is a talented historical novelist.

Broadman & Holman - There’s always a company in your industry you just know nothing about. For me that company is B&H. Don’t know anybody who works there or even used to work there. Nothing.

An old-time Bible publisher who’s lasted the years and done some merging, they publish the Christian Standard Bible. They also work with Beth Moore.

Oh, and they are publishing Oliver North’s fiction. That should tell you something right there. Unrelated to Oliver North, they work out of Nashville.

Barbour - Best-known for putting classics and/or very inexpensive books into market, they’re an interesting company in Ohio, I think. Most likely if you own My Utmost for His Highest you own a Barbour book. They also do very inexpensive mass market romance novels under the HeartQuest imprint.

They tried a upscale revamp of their fiction and nonfiction under the name of Promise Press, but it seems that that’s not worked out, at least in name. Those trade-size books are now released under the Barbour name. Their fiction list is mid-list authors.

Crossway - Coming out of Wheaton, IL, they started strong with Frank Peretti in fiction. Now they seem to focus on suspense and medical and westerns in genre categories. They’re making a nonfiction splash at the moment with John Piper’s timely, The Passion of Jesus Christ

Moody Publishers - Also in the Chicago-area of IL, this publishing house is linked to Dwight Moody's ministry and the Bible Institute. Larry Burkett and Gary Chapman are here. I looked at the their fiction list and didn’t really recognize titles or authors. That’s not a condemnation as I just don’t know their list.

Howard Publishing - This publisher, based in Louisiana, is best known for their hymnal publishing though they’ve recently entered the fiction world as well. It’s a small is at the moment. Gary Parker is probably the biggest author.

And finally…newly entered into the ring:

Relevant Books - From the same group out of Orlando that publishes the magazine and also releases those nonfiction books about rock stars and movies, this is a publisher for an emerging market. They recently published their first novel which, oddly enough, is about a martyred Roman woman from 200 AD. It’s called Perpetua. Seems an odd match to their audience but who knows. I don’t know their plans for fiction in the future.

I’m sure there’s more CBA publishers who do fiction here and there. But this will cover most of your bases. Tomorrow we’ll look at the more peripheral Christian publishers or the general market publishers who stray into the CBA field now and then. Folks like Paraclete, Warner Faith, Harper San Francisco, etc.

Monday, April 12, 2004

Please Keep All Hands Inside the Car: Day 1 of Our CBA Publishing Tour

This week I’m doing a lot of reading and preparing for the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin so rather than anything too intensive I thought we’d take a tour around the CBA industry. Today we’ll start with a handful of the major CBA publishers.

Thomas Nelson - The largest CBA publisher, Nelson is also the only publicly-traded Christian publisher that isn’t a subsidiary of a large company. That being the case, their books are open to the public. In Christian publishing, you stand at the top if you publish a Bible. Nelson publishes the New Revised Standard, the New King James, and the New American Bible. Their bestselling nonfiction authors include a who’s-who of Christian living authors including Charles Swindoll, Max Lucado, John McArthur, and John Eldridge. They have a few imprints and gift lines including W Publishing Group, J. Countryman, Tommy Nelson, Rutledge Hill, Nelson Reference, and WestBow Press.

WestBow, as far as I can tell, is going to be fiction wing formerly under W publishing. The big names at WestBow are Ted Dekker, Frank Peretti, Angela Hunt, and Robert Whitlow.

Historically, Nelson has been all over the map in terms of its commitment to fiction. WestBow represents a rededication to the form, but only time will tell. Nelson is based in Nashville, TN.

Zondervan - The second largest CBA publisher, Z is owned by HarperCollins which in turn is owned by News Corp, the megalithic company owned by Rupert Murdoch. So the same company reaps benefits from the Narnia and the Fox Television show The Swan which may be the most hateful thing ever televised. Such are the times.

Zondervan has publishing rights for the NIV, the New American Standard, and about four or five other Bibles. They publish Rick Warren and his Purpose-Drive empire as well as Lee Strobel, Jim Cymbala, and Philip Yancey. HarperCollins owns the copyright for C. S. Lewis’ work and you’ll now see Zondervan’s logo on the spine as well. They operate out of Grand Rapids, MI. They have a gift line called Inspirio, but the only imprint of which I know is Emergent YS, which is doing some interesting books on the emergent church topic.

Their fiction hasn’t yet matched their non-fiction but asking it to is almost an impossible task. They publish Terri Blackstock and Karen Kingsbury. Stephen Lawhead and Walter Wangerin both publish with Zondervan as does British novelist Adrian Plass whose work is worth your time.

Tyndale - Independent and privately-held, Tyndale is an interesting model for ministry and faith. They’re based outside Chicago, IL, and hold the rights to the New Living Translation.

They also, if you’re unaware, publish Left Behind. At this point, those books pretty much exist outside the scope of fiction in general so I’ll list them apart. Tyndale also made waves with Lisa Beamer’s Let’s Roll and is doing a book licensed from The Passion.

On the fiction front they have a pretty strong list. They work with Francine Rivers, Randy Alcorn, Frank Peretti, Karen Kingsbury, and Lori Copeland. They tend to have a few more titles for men including some books by Sigmund Brouwer. For the women they have a romance imprint called Heartquest.

Multnomah - Also privately held, Multnomah operates out of Sisters, Oregon, which apparently isn’t real close to anything else.

Multnomah begins the mid-size publishers who don’t have the income from Bible sales added to their bottom-line. They do have The Prayer of Jabez though which was the #1 NYTimes non-fiction bestseller for 2002. They also publish Max Lucado and Joshua Harris, who tries to teach teens to court.

Their fiction program is pretty strong. They publish Francine Rivers, Liz Curtis Higgs, Sharon Foster, Randy Alcorn, Karen Kingsbury, and have a tent-pole in romantic-suspense with Dee Henderson. They’re also creating a few waves with Robin Jones Gunn at the moment, riding the wave of chick lit.

Baker Books - The best Christian publishing company ever! Especially since in 2003, they bought Bethany House saving us from a wide variety of disastrous possibilities. Baker is privately held and runs from Grand Rapids, MI. They have a number of imprints including Revell, Baker Academic, Chosen, Brazos (a cool little group with some pretty nifty postmodern titles), and now Bethany House.

Among their non-fiction they publish Elisabeth Eliot, R.C. Sproul, and Corrie ten Boom. Bethany House adds Tommy Tenney, Donna Partow, and the Jesus Freaks books by dcTalk to that list.

Fiction wasn’t a strength until Baker acquired Bethany. Revell found success with Ray Blackston’s Flabbergasted and do some interesting books with James Calvin Schaap. Bethany brings a concentration of fiction authors including Janette Oke, Beverly Lewis, Tracie Peterson, Lauraine Snelling, Gilbert Morris and many more CBA favorites. Bethany also publishes critically acclaimed Jamie Turner, Ann Tatlock, Dale Cramer, Lynn Austin, and others. Plus, they have me who is trying to broaden that list of authors even more. Perhaps by adding you.

So that’s day 1. Tomorrow we’ll look at Waterbrook and Harvest House and the rest. Stay tuned.

By the way, to get in the spirit of the Festival of Faith and Writing, next week we’ll be talking about Godric by Frederick Buechner. I’m hoping to figure out a way to post from the festival on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday but am running into some technical difficulties. We shall see.

Titles of Interest

Every once in a while I'll post a brief list of fiction that's newly released or upcoming that you may want to check out. I haven't read these yet since they're new but they look to be of interest to us.

Heaven Lake by John Dalton. Fiction about a Christian missionary in China.

Unveiling: a Novel by Suzanne Wolfe. Paraclete releases this novel from the editor of Image that is set in the world of art restoration.

The Preservationist by David Maine. A fictional take on Noah.

Thursday, April 08, 2004

Bridging the Gap—Solution Five: Reversing Field on Genres

Spurred by a question asked by one of you, I want to take a look at our most difficult job in bridging the gap—convincing the gatekeepers that books do not have to be pigeonholed in genres to be worthwhile on their shelves.

This is an agonizing situation. For the past years publishers have been trying to educate bookstores about the dire need to think of books in terms of genre. The problem is that, unlike general bookstore, CBA stores had fiction as only a tiny portion of their stores’ stock. There were Bibles and music and nonfiction and gifts and cards and toys and all sorts of nonsense that gives me the heebie-jeebies. Readers had to come in, look at the spines of a couple hundred books and decide what to buy.

Publishers sensed, rightly, that this isn’t the best way to organize things. A campaign began (at about the same time as the Christy Awards were inaugurated) to create standard categories for CBA fiction. The categories are: Contemporary, North American Historical, International Historical, Mystery/Suspense, Western, Futuristic/Science-Fiction, Romance, and Allegory.

The thought is that if a person likes mysteries, if you group mysteries together readers will be more likely to pick one blindly off the shelf to look at, if not buy. The genres work for the most part though I’m less inclined to believe we need Allegory as its own category—especially since most of the time the books touted as “allegories” aren’t truly allegories at all but merely overly symbolic. The breakdown occurs, I believe, in the category of Contemporary Fiction. What in the world does that mean anyway?

The books in this category come in nearly every shape and flavor. You have “chick lit”—which is actually closer to romance. You have humorous books. You have books with hints of mystery, books with family drama, books with people dying of cancer. And what do you do with a book that spans both history and contemporary?

It’s a problem and one as an artist that I cringe at. My favorite books and movies and even music tends to cross genres. I certainly like the occasional mystery or fantasy book, but I never want a steady diet. I don’t even want a steady diet of plain, old screwed-up family Corrections contemporary fiction. So where do these fall? What’s our solution?

Unfortunately, we have to practice patience at the moment. We’re in a weird spot right now where readers’ affinity for historical fiction has created two “genres” where none exist in the general market. A Barnes & Noble mixes historical and contemporary fiction without hesitation. Our readership loves the peace, tranquility, and quiet faith of the olden-days. Per capita, we have more historical fiction novels than any other slice of the publishing industry. But that number is slowly changing. More and more “modern” stories are being published. At some point the balance will tip and either historical fiction will become integrated into a broader fiction genre or it’ll become it’s own little subgenre with its own little shelves.

When that switch occurs, contemporary fiction will gain the lion’s share of shelfspace and most retailers will acknowledge that a certain “critical mass” of titles will drive readership more than even promotion or marketing. Till then, we have to keep writing our books, watch the teeter-totter slowly shift, and accept our “contemporary fiction” categorization with a smile.

(A note: this is not supposed to be a death-knell for historical fiction. What I worry about though is that if standard CBA historical fiction becomes a slowly dwindling genre with its own shelf then powerful historical novels with broader appeal aren’t going to be put in the proper place. This is a conundrum for which I haven’t an answer at the moment. Don’t stop writing you historical fiction, however. We’ll figure it out.)

Wednesday, April 07, 2004

Bridging the Gap—Solution Three and Four: Become Irresistible or Unignorable

I got swamped today and this is even more off the cuff than usual, but there is a possibility in these discussions that perhaps we’re being too passive. The best defense, as it is said, is a good offense. (Or is it, the best offense is a good defense?) Either way, we’re going to be offensive here, perhaps in both meanings of the word.

You do have an option to skirt the edges of the CBA world you know. There are publishers (Paraclete is the best example) that deal with Christian novels with more literary flair. Typically these novels make pretty small splashes in the publishing world (secular or Christian) but if your novel is right, the market will come to it. And if Paraclete all of a sudden publishes a bestseller there is a good chance that the CBA industry will come clamoring—if not for you than at least for similar books. It’s a long shot, sure, but look at Blair Witch and the indie film movement as a whole.

I saw a quote the other day (and I can’t find it now) that said something like, “We can’t wait around for the door to open for Christian artists. We’re looking for Christian artists who knock the door down.” Something of that ilk. There’s lots of merit to the notion—especially on the creative side. As artists, we do need to take primary responsibility for the direction of our fields and forms. Knocking down the door is a little harder. I think, primarily, that it means creating a work that simply can’t be set aside. Make your book so great that our publisher HAS to take this thing to print regardless of the consequences. Again, the onus is on the artist. And really, that’s where most of our influence remains. We will not change buyers’ minds overnight, but we can create a work that finds new buyers.

In the end, this notion (and this blog) returns to the actual work of writing. This is just a lot of palaver if the books don’t come. I need to write better. You need to write better. Your friend does too. So let’s meet and talk about these issues, but then let’s set them aside and go to our notebooks or computers and let’s put the words down that will actually make the difference.

Tuesday, April 06, 2004

Bridging the Gap—Solution Two: A Subtle 180

“It we crossover, we’re bringing the cross over!”

I remember one of the dcTalk lads shouting this during a concert at Creation in 1995. They were hugely on the rise; talk was flitting about concerning a feature film; and the assumption was that they’d be the next big act (I guess following Amy Grant?) who would make the transition to secular superstardom. The implication in their message was one of authenticity of faith—celebrityhood wouldn’t change their message. As it turned out, things didn’t pan out quite the way some people thought and the “problem” was never really an issue. Boy did the people cheer when they heard it though.

You’ll get less cheers is you were to shout out, “I’m staying here in CBA and bringing the world in with me!” But that’s essentially what we’re all talking about here in one way or another. We’re trying to turn art into a mirror that reflects what’s going on in the world at large rather than use it as a cake decorating set to pretty up life and cover over the rough spots with frosting.

How do we sell this idea to the gatekeepers?

I think we invert everything we’ve ever talked about here. We’re writing fiction, we needs to be primarily about story and secondarily about message. To the gatekeepers, however, we need to talk about the Christian message and themes of the book. We need to show how God is glorified through the book and how believers will be uplifted.

We need to do this because we need to sell the idea that we’re not so much wallowing in the world as dragging the “world” into the light of God’s throne. The concern of people hung up on content is that Christians don’t understand the insidious way the secular world can taint everything around it. The assumption is that vigilance is the only safeguard against corruption and dirtiness. By showing our control over the story and the power we have in bringing “the world” under the critical lens of a Christian-themed book we should be able to assuage those fears. At least to an extant.

Let me make something clear, though. This in no way has ANY bearing on the writing and creation of a book. We just CANNOT write this way. Actually we can, but if we do what we’ll have is CBA fiction. Many Christian authors feel that they are writing about “powerful” and “challenging” worldly topics be it AIDS or divorce or child abuse or whatever. The problem is that they aren’t acting as a mirror to the world but as a projection screen on which is shown only carefully scripted propaganda. We have enough of that.

So that’s it. Taking our cue from Paul we become CBA watchdogs to reach CBA watchdogs. Because in principle our goals should be the same—“Exploring God in his nature and our lives because of Him.” It’s just in practice that we differ and our goal is to minimize that difference.

Monday, April 05, 2004

Bridging the Gap—Solution One: Ministry and Money

Over the next days, we’ll look at various ways of trying to make the CBA marketplace more open to books that may push the envelope in terms of content. These ideas are not meant to be “solutions” so much as possible courses of action. We can debate the relative merits or problems with each. Some may in fact be contradictory, but I think we should try to explore as many options as we have open to us.

Also, I don’t expect all of us to each choose the same path of engagement. I hope our discussions can be honest, candid, and frank, but always respectful.

Idea #1
As a business, we run remarkably jargon-free. Sure we sometimes “dialogue” and “think outside-the-box,” but we’re a group of mostly down-to-earth people who aren’t caught up in the newest buzzwords nor are we obsessed with trends.

There is one term bouncing around here lately, though, that seems to have some buzz to it: gatekeeper. We’ve become very concerned in our publishing decisions about gatekeepers. We make them, in fact, sound much like the mythical Sphinx or Python’s Bridgekeeper who will kill us unless we solve a little riddle or answer questions about the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. Our goal is always to get our books past the gatekeeper.

In this discussion, it’ll be these mysterious “gatekeepers” with whom we’re most concerned. We can’t focus on the LOL’s (little old ladies) because frankly, we have no direct way to reach them with our message and little chance of changing their minds. The retailer has always acted as an intermediary between publisher and customer and thus it will be in this case as well. Except rather than product going from publisher to customer, we’re attempting to sell an idea. If we can convince the retailer then they will be able to approach the customer.

I think there’s two ways—ignoring any rigmarole about the value of art—that this argument may be made. First we can appeal to retailers sense of mission and second we can appeal to their wallet.

The great majority of Christian retailers feel their business is also a ministry. I think we need to begin gathering hard facts about the very limited demographics actually being reached by most CBA stores and put them in front of retailers. Stronger, edgier fiction doesn’t mean more non-Christians will come into their store, but Christians who might otherwise not shop there may begin seeking the books out. This is a new customer whose walk with God is altered/challenged by a work they sold in their store. That’s ministry in action.

It’s also commerce in action. New customers assumably mean new dollars. The rub is whether selling these books threatens old business and current customers. I think Christian music underwent this skirmish about a decade ago. As the “alternative” music scene grew bands playing lots of different kinds of music began appearing in Christian stores. There was a backlash against such music, but in the end the concerns disappeared. The packaging differentiated between mainstream Christian music and the varied alternatives. Listening booths allowed customers to sample the music before buying it. People typically didn’t go home with something they would hate.

Why is there such resistance to the same thing happening in books? First, nobody is convinced that an actual market exists for these books. Where a market came out of the woodwork to listen to alternative music, no such definable force has emerged for edgier fiction. Young people, it is assumed, don’t read.

Publishers meanwhile are doing themselves no favors in their marketing and promotion and packaging efforts. Books continue to look the same even when their stories might be geared to a completely separate audience. The CBA readership is so well-defined that it’s always terrifying to throw something out there that specifically aims away from our core audience.

Will these factors change? Packaging is already changing. Will a definable market emerge to which we can unveil challenging titles? This is a harder question. We’re out here certainly, but we’re scattered about and our numbers are murky to say the least. Still there’s hope. Always hope.

Exciting news...

Dale Cramer's (you'll remember him from his interview a few months ago) Bad Ground is receiving a starred review from Publishers Weekly. In my years of reading PW, I've never seen a novel from a CBA publishing house receive such an honor. [Edited: It has happened before, however. Velma Still Cooks in Leeway by Vinita Wright received this honor.] Congratulations to Dale and to our editors here (Luke H. especially) who partnered with him on the project. Well-deserved.

Friday, April 02, 2004

Clowns to the Left of Me, Jokers to the Right...

(Anybody else think that song always sounds like Dylan?)

Well, plans change and it looks like I’ll be sticking with faith*in*fiction for a little while longer at least. ;-)

And since my mind has changed about leaving, I’ll change my mind about our next series too. We won’t be taking a tour of the CBA industry next week. Instead, we’ll devote some more time to this notion of the rift between conservative Christians who loathe the thought of controversial or challenging art and us raving liberal Christians who apparently want drinking, swearing, and whoring by the truckload. There’s a nice exchange of thoughts in the “Comments” from two days ago and hopefully we’ll keep the conversation going. Remember I’m not any kind of final voice or arbiter of opinion. I just have the password to this journal and get to post my thoughts out front. That’s why I think adding a discussion board might be a good thing. It’ll allow the rest of you a chance to share your thoughts without breaking them into tiny little chunks.

Today I’d like to mention something that bears repeating every once in a while—there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s an Ecclesiastical point made time and again by Solomon as he points out the folly of life outside God, but it’s worth remembering. This argument is ancient—only our addition to the conversation is new. It’s worth it then to see what others, usually smarter than us (or at least me) have said on the topic .

This brings me to Gregory Wolfe’s essay “The Christian Writer in a Fragmented Culture.” Wolfe is the editor of Image: a Journal of the Arts and Religion, perhaps the premier literary journal in the country examining the intersection of art and faith. (Consider a subscription for a birthday or something. We need to support these endeavors.) His essay, first published in Image recently celebrated its 15th anniversary but this essay, which can be seen as almost a mission statement for the journal, was published in 1994 or 1995. You can find it collected in The Best American Essays 1995 or The New Religious Humanists which Wolfe himself edited. (It's always nice to be editor of something; you can always put your own work in without anybody being able to say anything.)

Wolfe’s essay, worth tracking down, is at once exciting, familiar, and in some ways, distressing. It’s exciting because there’s a real passion to the words, and insight. This is an eloquent call to discovering the power Christian writing has to bridge both the sacred and the secular as well as fundamentalist and liberal factions within the church. It’s familiar because if you read that last sentence you’ll see it’s discussing the same issue on which we’re about to spend a week. And it’s distressing because obviously not much progress has been made in a decade. This is one of the key men in the world of the Christian arts and I’m not sure how much his voice has been heard. How are we to fare then? Is this a fight that can’t be won?

The fight may not be won, but I still think we’re called to participate. And I think we’re called to make sure it’s not a fight at all, but an open dialogue and discussion. Wolfe’s voice has been heard (I’m talking about him, aren’t I?) and I do think there’s been movement between the sides. Our call, according to Wolfe (who uses Richard Niebuhr’s terminology) is to:
“…get away from the ‘Christ against culture’ and ‘Christ in culture’ perspectives, and to affirm a ‘transformationist’ vision. Transformation is what faith and imagination have in common: they take the stuff of ordinary life and place it in the light of the ultimate questions of sin and redemption.”
How that will look and what it will sound like are the hard questions ahead. We can’t choose to simply ignore the conversation, though. So let’s all put our thinking caps on over the weekends and begin to has this thing through starting Monday.

Thursday, April 01, 2004

Good News, Bad News

The good news first. After months of negotiating, BHP is ready to announce the first title in its new Groundswell imprint. This publishing venture will allow us to publish cutting-edge fiction that pushes the established CBA boundaries. Our first title is going to be an urban romantic comedy penned by notable and controversial rap sensation 50 Cent. Mr. Cent has recently devoted himself to the Lord and wants to put his gangsta ways behind him. The story revolves around a wounded rap star who finds himself falling for the no-nonsense nurse who leads him to Christ.

We're also in negotiations for two other books.

One would be with Roberto Visconti, who played "Scornful Roman" in The Passion of the Christ for a biblical history novel that follows the life of the Roman soldier who won Jesus' garment.

The second book would be a novel from Max Lucado. Well, not so much a novel, as just a blank book with his name on the cover. We're predicting modest sales in the low 240,000s.

So that's the good news. The bad news is that I'll be closing shop here soon. It's the hardest thing I've ever had to do, but I need to put the needs of my children and the future of my family first. I've been asked to write the novelizations of Rick Warren's Purpose Driven Life and Purpose Driven Church. We're also talking with Andrew Lloyd Webber about turning them in lavish Broadway musicals. Matthew Broderick is being mentioned as a possible lead. Keep your fingers crossed. In the meanwhile, I thank you for your support through the past months and wish you Godspeed in the future.