f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 07/01/2004 - 08/01/2004

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

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Day 4 of Genre – Chick Lit

Let me send a theory up the flagpole here and see what comes of it. The theory is that part of what’s fueling a lot of what seem to be otherwise independent trends in various entertainment sectors is a fully-blossomed narcissism that means we’re either no longer embarrassed about of self-obsessions or we’re all so very lost and confused that we need to turn our focus inward.

Let me give examples of what I’m talking about here.

In television, we’ve been under attack by any number of reality television shows. While these people certainly aren’t US, in a sense they can be at least a reasonable substitution. We’re not going to be as witty as Frasier, as beautiful as the Friends, or as glamorous as the Alias crew. But we can place ourselves in the situations posited by reality television and ask ourselves: “How would I have done there?”

The same sort of things seems to have been happening in a very different realm—the land of superheroes. In the late 80s post-modernism hit the graphic novels industry with a sledgehammer as writers like Frank Miller and Alan Moore with books like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen began deconstructing the superhero mythology. Looking beneath the masks and under the capes, comics and graphic novels were no longer about these amazing men and women who lived among us as virtual gods, instead offering stories about these deeply human men and women for whom “super-ness” was just one more complex part of life. We weren’t content with heroes; we needed to bring them down to our level.

Non-fiction has brought us hyper-self-conscious books by people like Dave Eggers and Augusten Burroughs and Rick Moody—and then self-involved meta-critiques from reviewers like Dale Peck.

Even blogging is guilty allowing any fool with access to a computer to shoot their mouth off about things like the narcissistic tendencies of our culture.

Which brings us, in a round-about way to chick lit. To me, chick lit is born of the same psychology. One of the core traits of the genre is that almost always told in the first person. “I” “I” “I”. Granted these are characters but it’s not to big a leap to see that the “I” can just as easily stand for the reader as it does for the author.

These are “real” women—women we could be, thus placing us in the heroine’s role—facing trying circumstances surrounding friends, family, work, and most importantly dating. (Chick lit has been called by those more cynical than I: “romance made legit,” i.e. romance books women aren’t embarrassed to be seen with) Chick lit novels may be considered the literary equivalent of the “romantic comedy” film. The genre’s start is typically attributed to Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, which simultaneously launched the wave of Austen appreciation for it’s love of Mr. D’arcy and Pride and Prejudice.

There’s a subset of chick lit going on called “mom lit” which is basically the same thing except with sassy 40+ year-old narrators.

That’s what we’re seeing the most of in CBA at the moment. Kristin Billerbeck has done some chick lit and I’m sure there’s more on the way, but Sisterchicks and Yada Yada Prayer Group are better categorized as “mom lit.” There’s a good reason for this and it’s that most of the CBA novelists out there are women in that age category. We haven’t necessarily had the “breakthrough” younger voice of a Nanny Diaries or Devil Wears Prada, though Ray Blackston’s Flabbergasted came sorta close.

The final point to make about chick lit is that, in some ways, it’s a breath of fresh air—especially for CBA. So much of women’s fiction in CBA has been message focused or issue focused. Sexual abuse. Physical abuse. Infertility. Various cancers. Kidnapping. You know the Lifetime Channel on television…this industry has published more fodder for their made-for-television movies than they’d know what to do with. And yet now here comes something light and breezy. Something that (you’ve read David Taylor’s film article mentioned below, right?) may content itself a little more with merely being entertaining.

In the end, maybe it’s not about narcissism. Maybe it’s about the search for who we are. We’re all lost, in some way, no matter what we say. Still sinning. Still never quite making the mark. In this case, life’s worn us down with it’s culture of fear (which permeates everything) and so we need to just smile a little. Who knows? Get ready for it, though, because sassy, no-nonsense women and their Manolo Blahnik shoes are going to be filling your bookshelves for a while yet to come.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004

Day 3 of Genre – Historical

Technically, at least in the CBA, historical fiction is anything written today that takes place up to 1945 A.D. Post-WWII Fiction is considered “contemporary” which is somewhat arbitrary and I think is going to have to be revisited at some point soon because things like Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis certainly play as “history” these days.

“Historical” often finds itself as a subcategory or a modifier. For instance if one is reading a historical mystery or historical romance it’s most likely because one wants to read a mystery or romance and the historical setting adds a dash of flavor. But there are certainly “historical” novels as well, whose sole focus is to recapture great events or vanished cultures or some other aspect of human life that would otherwise be lost to time. James Michener seems to be the best example of this.

Pure historical fiction seems slavish in its historical accuracy and attention to detail. Fiction is often somewhat subverted for the pure thrill of the research itself. The best historical fiction seems to find a true balance between the story and the true events/facts surrounding the events.

Within Historical fiction there are eras that gain the most attention. Biblical fiction has always been popular. Civil War fiction. British royalty. Roman times. In other words, historical fiction is often as much about another place as it is about another time. In a lot of ways, it’s the truest expression of using fiction to escape. A book can literally transport your imagination outside its present circumstances to somewhere you’ve never been and an age in which you’ve never lived.

Historical fiction has been a popular genre in the CBA for decades, but usually it’s paired pretty closely with romance as well. Biblical fiction obviously has its place both in CBA (Liz Curtis Higgs, Francine Rivers, and Tommy Tenney’s Hadassah) and outside CBA (The Red Tent). My fears for the genre are that either we are limiting ourselves to narrowly to American frontier history and also that our research isn’t full and rich enough. To fully work, historical fiction NEEDS to transport. We should smell and hear and see things as they were. That takes a lot of reading and study. It’s hard grunt work, but it bears great fruit in the end.

The final caution in historical fiction is anachronistic thinking. Every once in a while in a work like Godric (set in the 1200s) I found myself thinking, “That sounds like something I heard a few years ago in church.” In the end, we have only our own perspectives on life and sometimes it's hard to overcome that.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004

Day 2 of Genre – Western

Hmmmm…as I start this process I notice how woefully unprepared I am to even attempt any kind of meaningful discourse on, well, most of these genres. (In my defense, however, I’m usually woefully unprepared to talk about most of the things I end up talking about and that’s never stopped me before, so we’ll just plow on.) One instructive aspect of this could be that in genre fiction there are fans and then there are the rest of us who look at the fans and say, “You read what? Why?”

Which is not necessarily my take on Westerns. My take is probably something more along of the lines of: “You read what? Aw, how quaint!” Doesn’t it seem like a genre that time has passed by? I think my grandfather read westerns. Zane Gray. Louis L’Amour. Are there others? I know Steven Bly is doing the Western thing in the CBA realm and living it, too. But like the cowboy, this genre seems to be a vanishing breed. A lonesome tumbleweed cast adrift on all the hot air blowing out of publishing houses.

What’s interesting is that film has managed over the years to give the genre occasional shots in the arm. Open Range, The Missing, Wyatt Earp, Tombstone, the epic Unforgiven, and the inimitable Young Guns. I and II. I don’t sense a great resurgence of interest in books linked with Hollywood, however.

The most popular recent foray’s into the genre, so far as I can tell, are Larry McMurtry’s novels, Cormac McCarthy’s Border Crossing Trilogy featuring All the Pretty Horses (which is also the name of a trans-gender punk rock group in Minneapolis), and the cowboy poetry/themes in Leif Enger’s Peace Like a River. I’m certain I’m missing some books, but I searched Amazon for a little and nothing too huge popped out at me. Feel free to fill in any blanks.

I think I read a Zane Gray or two when I was a kind, but my most recent experience with the genre was Sigmund Brouwer’s Sam Keaton series. (Full disclosure: BHP repackaged these books so they were in our list. They may be out of print again.) Anyway, I was thoroughly entertained by Brouwer’s books. They seemed to have the requisite horses and gun play and rough landscape. There was a world-weary sardonic tone that I found appealing. Yippee-kai-yeah.

The western genre gives us a chance to see how often, a novel is actually two distinct genres at once—in this case the “historical western.” Most of us (I did at least) almost instinctually think of western as set in the past. There’s certainly no reason why one can’t have a modern western (other than much of the west has changed greatly) but most seem to be in the late 19th-century, set amid the settling, Manifest-Destiny-style, of our nation. Time and place become key elements in the western. It’s defined by it’s landscapes and wide open spaces. It is, perhaps with jazz and baseball, one of the purest American creations ever.

And yet it’s dying. Seems to be at least.

I’m wondering if it’s a matter of political correctness. Are we unable to read stories of “heroes” who conquered the west? Is it a shift in national psychology? Has the call to rugged individualism been tamed?

What’s interesting is that, in general terms, the Western is often seen as a “male” genre, i.e. one men will read. Certainly women read it, too, but women read everything. Has the male gaze shifted over the years to the technological/war thriller of Clancy and his ilk? And is there a way to recapture that gaze?

The last question is the hardest to answer. I know we’d hesitate over a western series no matter how good it is. It is a genre that seems to lend itself well to issues of faith, however. There’s something about the vastness of the west that lends itself to contemplation. (See Kathleen Norris’ Dakota for instance.) And if it’s set in the past, there were everyday issues of faith that simply don’t seem to exist today. But there seems to also be a limited expanse of ground you can cover out there in Big Sky country. It often seems to be man vs. God and little else.

I don’t like to see the genre disappear though. Especially one that is linked so pivotally with our country. But what twist the re-emergence of the genre will have to take, I can only predict.

Monday, July 26, 2004

Day 1 of Genre – Introduction

I don’t know that there’s an official list of official genres. Like every other conversation there seem to be some blurry lines. Is “coming-of-age” fiction a genre? There’s enough stories out there, certainly. Let’s spend some time setting up some parameters and boundaries and then look at each genre case by case.

Genre is a word of French derivation that essentially means kind or class. It’s an organizational word meant to group things by characteristic. It’s linked to words like genus and gender all of which are also about cataloguing. If I were better at etymology I could tell you why we all use this word for artistic categorizing, but I’m not so we’ll just move on.

Here’s my list of genres, arranged alphabetically.

Adventure
Chick-Lit
CBA Fiction
Erotica
Fantasy
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual
General
Gothic
Historical
Horror
Mystery
Romance
Science-Fiction/Futuristic
Suspense/Thriller
Western

Feel free to make your own or comment on this one. General/Literary gives me the most trouble, but I don’t want to subdivide it too far.

Chick-lit may surprise people since it’s relatively new, but I think it’s agreed upon in the industry at this point that it’s managed to pass the point of “trend” to actually establish itself (ironically by reaching back through time to authors like Austen) as a legitimate category.

The others wax and wane with the time. Or rather, enter and exit out of the greater public consciousness with time because none of these genres every really disappears. There are always niche presses and publishers who know how to reach their devoted core of fans that are truly the resonate population that defines a genre. It’s those readers more than anything that allow a category make this list. 

Let's go back to “coming of age” stories. Are there are a ton of these books out there? Yep. Are there readers who just LOVE coming-of-age stories and can’t wait for the next one to come out? That seems less likely to me. It’s where we get into problems with the general category. It’s too broad. I think “literary” is almost a better designation because there are certainly readers who will pick up the next work praised in the Times book review. But the line that separates literary from general fiction is as clear as coffee.

The last point to make is that, obviously, most of these genres have sub-categories that are nearly popular enough to be considered their own genres. Apocalyptic Christian fiction, for instance. Or “speculative” thrillers in the vein of DaVinci Code and Rule of Four. Or “pulp” under the mystery category. You can break those out if you’d like, it’s just that list begins to get a little unwieldy at some point.

The rest of the week (and maybe longer), we’re going to be looking at these genres and especially their relation as sub-genres in the Christian market. I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Christian literature and I’m not abandoning that, but the fiction world is far broader than simply that slice of the puzzle. And there’s a question of value. Is it better to write a poor novel with literary pretensions or craft a finely honed drawing-room mystery? I don’t want to be accused of elitism here (even though I wear my interests and preferences on my sleeve); I mostly want to champion stories well told, no matter where it finds itself on the list.

On Accountability

Deborah expounds on the notion of accountability in her post at The Master's Artist.

Friday, July 23, 2004

With Me It’s All Or Nothing…

Yes, that’s a little bit of Oklahoma for those of you who know your lavish Broadway musicals. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Anyway, I’m using it as my entrance into today’s post which is basically how my biggest concern is that we (in the CBA) too often address these topics from either/or positions.

It’s either: THERE MUST BE A SUBSTANTIAL CHRISTIAN MESSAGE.

Or

THAT’S HAMMERING PEOPLE OVER THE HEAD. THERE MUST BE NO EXPLICIT CHRISTIAN MESSAGE.

Both of these are ridiculous. In arguing for “common truths” I’m in no way implying that we should give off writing about Christian truths as well. Just that there should be a spectrum of possible approaches to literature that can still be considered “literature of faith.” I want our publishing house to be able to offer both the subtle and the explicit. Gilbert Morris insists, as part of his ministry, that each of his novels contains the Gospel message in pretty straightforward language. I’m not stripping that from him.

Nor am I (and this is always the reverse claim) watering down the gospel. These are novels after all, not sermons. Stories, whether we like it or not, have their own voice and logic and if/when we impose on that we cheapen or abuse the form and lose the inherent power in the art.

So here’s to the call, that’s been spoken before, to simply do what we do well. Whether it’s common truths and a whisper of grace or a novel of the soul stepped in theology. Regardless of what we write, write it well.

Which bring us to next week’s discussion. It’s basically going to be trumpeting the same theme, but it’ll do so by looking at some areas we’ve not really looked at yet: genres. Romance, mystery, fantasy, horror, and historical. Five days of genre and why snootiness abounds.

Thursday, July 22, 2004

The Danger of Leaving Comments

Forgive me, Marci, but your comment left on yesterday’s post will serve as an entrée into today’s discussion. You said:
But if we leave "common truths to their own merits," won't we end up with the kind of falsehood that David Taylor describes (as in The Hours)?

I don’t think so and the reason is the difference between the words explicit and implicit.

Take a favorite book like To Kill a Mockingbird. (Which I continue to use because it’s great and lots of us have read it.) I think all of us would agree that this book is solidly grounded in biblical truth. Atticus Finch continues to be one of my role models as a “father.” (I tried very hard to convince my wife, against her better judgment, to name our son Atticus, but apparently her prayers fly faster and truer and we ended up, so far, with two daughters.)

Anyway, Mockingbird talks about racism and judging and innocence and whole host of other common truths without really ever tying them to some grand spiritual truth. Those links are implicit. A book like Ann Tatlock’s All the Way Home looks also at very similar common truths (innocence, racism, etc.) however because of one of the character’s being a Christian, they make more explicit connections. It’s not done in a bad way or inorganic to the story, it’s just there…and more likely to turn off readers who want no part of Christian fiction regardless of how well written it is. (And Ann’s is well-written.)

So, can we in CBA publish a book that says, “Racism is bad,” and leave it up to the reader to figure out why. Or must we say, “Racism is bad because in Christ we’re all one?” I think you’re going to see more and more of the first kind of book. (Not about racism, per se, just any truth. Even beautiful truths.)

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Appropriating a Conversation

I don’t know David Taylor, but he’s done me a great service by writing, eloquently, on essentially the same topic we’ve been hashing over here so I will now do the noble thing of simply letting him do all the thinking for both of us.

Taylor’s conversation is about Christian films (as he runs something called the Ragamuffin Film Festival) and what defines them and whether the artists want to be called Christian filmmakers and why Left Behind irritates on the screen as well as the page.

I weaseled out of giving a definition of what makes a book Christian by saying it should all be based on reader response. If a reader is drawn closer to God through a particular work, so be it. This is passing the buck of course and I’m only too happy to do it.

Taylor makes more of an effort to actually answer the question by saying that a Christian film is one that "bears witness to a Christian imagination." I don’t want to put words in his mouth be he seems to intend that this means a film which approaches it’s narrative, intentionally or otherwise, with a view that reaffirms a view consistent with God’s nature and/or the legacy of faith. That he chooses Jaws as one of his examples startled me, but I see his point.

Taylor then goes on to ask an uncomfortable question: What makes a good Christian film?

If we transpose that to fiction we end up in the awkward position of sorting—sheep, goat—between good novels and bad novels. That’s nowhere I want to be right now. In my position, I can’t be there. But he does get to the essence of something that seems to separate art made within the CBA community and art made by Christians outside the CBA world. I’ll let his words speak.
Truth is that which accords with fundamental reality. Truth coheres not only with actual human existence but with God's intended purposes, or ideal, for human beings.

For the filmmaker there are two essential kinds of truth: the grand and the common. The grand truths deal with the big religious ideas. For the Christian this includes things like the sovereignty of God, the dislocation of human nature, the atonement of Christ. The common truths traffic in the more ordinary things of life: food, old age, racism, cerebral palsy. What's frustrating to a lot of Christian filmmakers is the presumptive expectation that they should only work with the grand or religious truths to the exclusion of the common, human truths: the little things. This expectation however is not only theologically problematic, it excludes the greater part of our lives and stagnates the imagination.

I don’t see a dearth of “common truths” in our fiction—but rather a common pattern. Often the hard common truth—the most typically seen are abuse, disease, teen pregnancy, abortion, addiction—is used as a device to reveal a grand truth, usually about God’s overcoming power. It becomes a formula that manages to minimize both.

I’d like to see new common truths surveyed and either left to their own merits or linked in some powerful new way to a previously unconsidered “grand truth.” When left to their own merits we’ll be in the place to discuss whether a story that upholds the Christian imagination is enough for a CBA publishing house. Regardless it’ll be a breath of fresh air.

Tuesday, July 20, 2004

Narrowing the Definition

I’ll pick up more on the articles posted by Christianity Today later in the week because I like a lot of what the guy says, and much of it applies even if he’s talking about film and we’re talking about fiction.

Today I want to get back to the actual task of defining Christian fiction (whether it needs to be defined or not) and look at it from a more practical business level. I’m sure the Christian film studios have the same exact conversations but I personally know nothing about Christian film studios and so we’ll stick with publishing. In fact we’ll stick with my publishing house. More specifically we’ll stick with the fiction wing of our publishing house.

There are stories—some true, some apocryphal—about Christian publishing houses writing down, in a list, the things that can and can’t be said in their novels or the thematic and plot elements that must be contained in each book. Such a thing make us “writers” jittery, but there are days (and there have been many lately) when I wouldn’t mind such a list in house. If nothing else, it’d make my job easier. I could just buy a big red stamp that says, “RFVSCR” (Rejected for Very Specific Content Reasons) and just go town.

That’s not the case here, however. We’ve decided to take each story as a case-by-case basis, mostly using historical precedence as our guide and occasionally going out-on-a-limb using informed guesses about what the market will tolerate.

What this has meant lately is a number of conversations revolving around respectively: market tolerance, literary merit, the value of entertainment, the implied brand of our publishing company, and the expectations of our readers. These are all pretty important issues when running a publishing company. You won’t get very far if you simply ignore them.

The easiest book for us to sign is one that, if you look at our list from yesterday, actually fits all those factors (including, quite possibly, the big head cover). We’d like a Christian author writing a noticeably Christian story that will find its way into a Christian bookstore under our label and affect people in their walk with God. That covers a lot of books, friends. An industry full.
As you know, from this site and other chatterings, writers are flexing their muscles a little and readers are getting more demanding. So there’s come a point when, in house, we’re reevaluating #2 on that list—message—and in turn #6, what readers are getting from our books.

Where has it gotten us? Further in some ways than one might expect. We’re looking at a broader range of books, I think, than ever before, and we’re looking at titles with a subtlety of message that we’ve previously considered “too quiet.” I’ll be more excited when we move forward with such books, but we’re getting closer.

So where’s does that leave us?

I’ve you’ve made it this far you’ve read just under 500 words about a definition for Christian fiction without actually reading the definition itself. I’m not just spinning my wheels or filling up space. I don’t get paid by the word and I don’t think I’m quite at the (fill in loathed politician here)-like ability of being able to just blabber without saying a thing.

I’ve been vague because I don’t want to limit you. We’ve talked about this before—the more rules you’re faced with, the more decisions you’re going to have to make in terms of the shape of your story. I don’t want to bog you down unnecessarily with more. I think we all know the general confines of CBA fiction. That’s is our playing field, and it is a field to which we continue to add territory.  

Monday, July 19, 2004

On Christian Fiction

The question has been raised—What makes a novel Christian?

You’d think this should be an easy answer, but once you start walking the path you quickly realize there aren’t enough breadcrumbs in the world to keep us from getting tangled up.
Here’s a number of ways we can approach the question:

1. Authorship - A Christian novel is any book written by an honest-to-goodness Christian. The follow-up question to that, of course, is how do we know if an author is Christian? Ummm…their socks?

2. Message - A Christian book is one that portrays Jesus as savior and Lord. What do we do with a book like, say, Passion of Reverend Nash which appears to do that but is written by a Jewish woman without much intention of evangelizing.

3. Publisher - Bethany House, Tyndale, WestBow, WaterBrook. Pick your poison. But then there’s the nagging problem of Penguin publishing Jan Karon and Tim LaHaye jumping to Doubleday.

4. Retail - Just look where it’s sold. Except Wal-Mart now is the largest retailer of Christian books in the world and last time I checked that wasn’t a Christian bookstore.

5. Big Heads on Covers - Here. Here. Here. Here. Here.  Or big fire fighter heads on covers even... here, here, here.

6. Reader Response - Probably the best answer, but impossible to gauge.

The answer, like I said, is complicated. And it depends who you ask and in what context. As I mentioned a long, long, long, long time ago the words we use in the discussion are pretty useless. Christian fiction has been appropriated to mean, more exclusively, CBA fiction. There are writers like Ron Hansen and Annie Dillard and Frederick Buechner dispensing doing very different things from what we’d find on Christian bookstore shelves and yet they often fulfill answers 1 and 2. (And Hansen’s Mariette at least has the big head thing going for him.)

I think the answer to this question is like the answer to a lot of questions surrounding this crazy little thing called faith—it’s depends on how restrictive your gate is.

But that’s your own personal answer. The complicated part is when we start looking at how companies define “Christian” fiction. We’ll get into that tomorrow. 


Friday, July 16, 2004

The Most Contradictory Advice

Yesterday we talked a little bit about how the worst advice you could listen to is advice based solely on readers’ desires. When I say this I’m talking about chapters like “10 Steps to a Better Novel” or the essays that fill magazines like Writer’s Digest or the workshops given at many writers conferences.

It’s the worst advice in the world if you want to write your novel.

It’s probably not bad advice though if you want to write a novel and possibly one that could see publication. Publishing, like every other form of entertainment, is mostly about following in footsteps. I don’t want us to get uptight or too haughty about this. Hollywood does it. TV does it. Churches do it. We mimic what’s successful. That’s just how life works.

Sure there are some folks who just completely rip-off ideas with no real creativity, but for the most part, it’s a matter of slow evolution. “This is a chick lit book, but with a twist.” Stuff like that.

I have no problems with that kind of writing. If you do it well and honor the craft and enjoy it, that’s wonderful.

It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, though, and that’s when advice touting such a route becomes problematic because your story may not fit so neatly into prescribed conventions.

You have to take a look at your priorities at that point. List them out—one, two, three. If absolutely getting published is at the top of your list, then you may need to rethink your story in more conventional terms. If telling your story, your way, is at the top, then you plow forward.

But realize that plowing forward will probably do one of two things.

Either it’ll open an opportunity to create something unique and well-received.

Or it’ll limit the appeal of your story and quite possibly cost you the chance to be published.

So the worst advice might you lead to get published and the best advice—be true to your story—might lead you to the rejection pile. That’s publishing.

So why do you write? Don’t worry about why anyone else writes or get frustrated that they’re getting published with less pure motives. Why do you write?

Thursday, July 15, 2004

The Worst Advice

I’ve been thinking a bunch lately about the relational nature of jobs and business in general. There’s always a three part structure: product, buyer, and seller. It’s easy to think of them in this order:

seller – product – buyer

But it seems more helpful, in terms of work, to think of it with the seller in the middle. They are the intermediary between the product that’s wanted and the buyer who wants it.

In terms of publishing we have readers, authors and the book. But that’s not really the case because you add editors and publishing houses and distributors and salesmen on top of that equation.

One way of sorting it is to look at authors – editors – readers. An editor’s job is to try and help link an author’s vision to a reader’s taste.

We’ll get more into this tomorrow, but I think the worst advice is any which solely focuses on the readers’ taste. Yes, we all like BANG! moments within two or three pages. And happy endings. And the lot. But if those things are imposed on the author’s intentions against her will. Well, that advice sucks.

More tomorrow. Must go to airport and pick up arriving parents.

Wednesday, July 14, 2004

Writing and Advice

(This was supposed to go up last night. Blogger was giving me problems. It's up this morning. Thanks.)

I don’t know if this will surprise you or not, but in general I don’t read writing books. I read Stephen King’s On Writing, which seemed to be only half about writing. At Penn State, I think we used Writing Down the Bones for a textbook for one of the classes, but I can’t remember anything about it. I’ve never even picked up Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

This is going to be a odd transition, but now that I think about it, my attitude toward writing books is a lot like my attitude toward birthing classes. I attended a 12-hour birthing class with my wife prior to our first daughter being born. It ended up being one of the greatest frustrations of my life because, in the end, nobody could say anything definite. (That and our class spent 45 minutes talking about making sure your dog’s feelings weren’t hurt by bringing the baby home. It’s a dog, people. Get a grip.)

Anyway, “It’ll depend on your delivery,” was the take home message of the class. They showed us video, gave us tips and hints, and all those things. But time after time, one of the instructors would completely contradict the other instructor or undermine what they said. You left thinking, “Well, it’ll either be black or white, left or right, up or down.”

People say writing is like giving birth. Blah. But in a sense, teaching is meaningless outside the actual experience of writing itself. Yes there are hints and tips and we can get excited about these (i.e. Stephen King’s crusade against adverbs) but really, there’s a flip-side to every argument, a head for every tails. I’ll let a better writer than myself take a further stab at talking about…see Neil Gaiman talking about how it’s possible to “break every rule” in literature…but only when you know the rules in the first place.

So that’s really what this advice or anyone hints are about. They’re not about definitive explanations of how to write. They’re only some bits of fluff that say, “This works. Sometimes. For some people. But maybe not you. Or maybe it will.”

In the end, who knows…

Actually that’s not a rhetorical question. There’s an answer.

You. You know. But you only know what rules apply and what you’ll simply not be bothered with this time out by WRITING. Okay then.

Taking Requests

So Faith*in*Fiction is at about 200 posts and 85,000 words. It's been up and running since late November 2003. It's been great fun and hopefully useful/enjoyable to read.

Every once in a while, though, I like to solicit topics for future discussions. My reading time has been diminished a bit, unfortunately so I haven't been able to respond to a particular book. I'll need to get back to that.

Is there any issue (writing, industry, or otherwise) that you'd like to see discussed? Any particular nuts/bolts of writing we should tackle? Anyone you'd like me to try and interview?

I'm not even close to being out of ideas yet--and invariably something comes up that warrants reaction--but if I can respond to some reader requests too that'd be great.

You can post here or at the discussion board.

Why Monica Lewinsky Is Like an Independent Bookstore...

It's nothing new to be frustrated by the current megalithic state of affairs in publishing...but this is the first time I've seen those affairs linked with our ex-Prez's oval office dalliances. But you'll have to make your own "bring-them-to-their-knees" jokes. I'm above that sort of thing.

Pat Holt gives her take, post-BEA.

Tuesday, July 13, 2004

The Hardest Advice

This one comes straight from my mentor/prof at Penn State, too.

The piece of advice he gave us was this: if you can do without it, then don't write.

In context, he was talking about what all of us young pup undergrads were going to do for the rest of our lives. For many, the road after the B.A. would lead straight into a Master's program. He wasn't a big fan of the idea. He thought all of us should get away from it, try to stay away from it. If we couldn't, then we were ready to take the next step.

As well, he took great issue with people who, when asked what they did said, "I'm a writer." He thought that term belonged to hacks or for people who do copywriting or technical writing. The answer he wanted to hear: "I write."

I love the full-frontal challenge of these two ways of looking at things. We're a bit mamby-pamby (that's a technical term) about stuff sometime and it's good to get a swift slap to the conscious. Writers tend to towards self-absorption and self-seriousness so abruptness can be a good thing now and then.

Young Writers...Really, Really Young Writers

From Slate...

Monday, July 12, 2004

Random Bits of Advice

I have no theme for this week, nor did I finish any novel or work of Christian thinking over the weekend. (I did however read a food book called A Meal Observed by the uniquely named Andrew Todhunter, and should you like to discuss your favorite moments of food writing and/or meal descriptions you can here.)

Instead, I’m just going to throw out very random bursts of writing advice that I either forged in the fiery crucible of my own molten writing experience or simply glommed from other sources, some remembered, others long forgotten. (Results will vary by user and cannot be guaranteed. No refunds.)

Today’s piece of advice is the notion of recontextualization.

Lots of people will tell you, “Write what you know.” This bit of advice agrees with that, but only in part. I remember being taught this as a sophomore at Penn State, by my favorite writing instructor. His bit of instruction is that rather than try to recapture a specific moment that occurred in our lives, we should instead internalize the feeling/emotion for that moment and then allow them to come out in a new context.

His example came from his own life. He’d seen a man in a flower shop simply weeping uncontrollably as he bought flowers. It was a simple striking moment without explanation. Essayists would find something meaningful in that moment. The novelist, my professor explained, internalized that moment and then tapped into that volcanic (I’m all about volcanologic descriptors today) grief in some completely different, but emotionally-related context. Actors, I think, often use this same method.

I like the idea because recreating a specific moment is not the job of fiction. It had a time and place and both that time and place stood outside your story. The emotion, the power, the meaning—all those things are legitimate. But simply semi-autobiography may be too easy an answer.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Pilgrim’s Progress

From Greg Wolfe’s essay, “Strange Pilgrims” in Image:
“The pilgrim may spend her life on the road, striving toward a goal that is never fully reached in this life, but she sees it ahead of her. And while the pilgrim’s personal experience is central, a pilgrimage is never undertaken in solitude. Pilgrims travel in groups; their shared memory and end form a bond of friendship that tests and unfolds the meaning of the journey. One false alternative to pilgrimage is the arrogant belief that one has arrived. But the other is wandering alone.”
Wolfe’s reference is both for those artists mentioned in The Life You Save... and also for those who’ve partnered and walked with Image for the last 15 years, but I think the statement is one that sums up very nicely the discussions being had in our context as well. In fact, there’s a lot of ways in which our discussion in a by-product of what Image is doing, has done, and will do.

What I’d like to spend a moment on right now is thinking through this “middle ground” that the idea of the pilgrim seems to inhabit. It resonates with me in a lot of ways mainly because I’ve been turned off recently by the absolutism I’ve seen so often in the church that prescribes one, and only one, way of thinking. We switched churches because I grew weary of being given answer after answer and never feeling invited to be part of the search for solution.

Wolfe’s notion of the pilgrim enchants because it enlarges the power and scope of the gospel and the life of faith. So often I think we hear “narrow gate” and turn it instead into a “narrow tunnel” once we become Christians, allowing ourselves only the slenderest of passages to creep our way to God. The vision of the pilgrimage keeps the gate a gate. On one side is the “freedom” of a life outside of God. On the other side is the freedom of a life in Jesus. I don’t claim there are many paths…but what about after the narrow way? How many paths exist within him?

At the same time, our need and reliance on each other is tantamount as well.

We are on our way. We are not yet there, but we are on our way. And this is what I have discovered. And this is what you have discovered. And soon, too soon, we will be there. But for now, we are on our way.

Happy Friday to you all.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

A Look at the New Image

My office right now…you have no idea. In general, I’m not a neat person and the recent weeks have taken their toll on my business space. You know how people who are messy always say they have their “system” when they really mean “piles”? Well, right now even that’s not working out. I just spent five minutes searching for my copy of Image.

Enough kvetching (which is used enough that I don’t think we should italicize it anymore) and onto today’s post. Which is basically a look at, I guess, the premier journal of faith and the arts out there. Mars Hill is basically the other contender and is fine as well. Maybe we shouldn’t rank them. Let’s just say that they’re both good, but Image just came in the mail and I need a topic to talk about and therefore we’re looking at it.

The journal is celebrating 15-years with a “state of the arts” focus that basically turns out to be short essays on everything from poetry and visual arts to dance and theater. (Alas, nobody chose to talk about comics. A shame.)

Some of the topics had two essays. Fiction had one. It was by Valerie Sayers (author of a few novels and Notre Dame professor. [Brief Penn State aside: Booooooo Notre Dame!])

The essay does a fine job ignoring CBA fiction in its entirety and is both a lament (publishing is a coalescing business with fewer opportunities for new stuff) and a celebration (at least we’re not in the lame 70s anymore!). Summarizing the state of fiction in a page and a half is no easy task, so I won’t comment too much more on the essay.

I liked Greg Wolfe’s editorial statement, “Strange Pilgrims” better however. In it he references a monumental new book called The Life You Save May Be Your Own which is the look at the intertwined lives of Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Thomas Merton.

Wolfe and the author of the book look at these artists as unique “pilgrims or apostles” who have "heard a specific pieces of news; and live life guided by the memory of an event.” They seek a specific end. He distinguishes these pilgrims from other religious folk who think they’ve already reached the end and romantic geniuses for whom only the search matters.

We’ll stop with that for today and pick it up again tomorrow. Time has gotten away from me and I need to go play softball. Now under which pile are my keys?

For Those About to Review a Book....

Don't use Dale Peck as your mentor.

Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Themes: Day 2

Thanks all for chiming in. Keep it up.

Just for the record, lest anyone claim I put myself about this fray, my two books have themes that can easily fit into the “overused” portion of our discussion.

My first book dealt with a new Christian struggling to understand the concept of being a “new creation” when the sins of his past were still out there for the world to see.

The second book, one of those dreaded conversion stories, looked at the question of what we put our faith in and whether that can stand the test of time.

I think there’s some other themes the books address that do break some new ground, but there’s familiar turf being trod as well. Anyway, just want that out there lest I be accused of the whole speck/log thing.

What I’m wondering is whether writing a “Christian” book doesn’t just lead us down these paths. I mean, the great problem of all time is always going to be our reconciliation to a perfect God. If we don’t address that at some level it seems we’re not doing our job as Christian writers. Maybe it’s just all coming out of the reformed, evangelical theology that dominates a lot of CBA fiction. There’s certain tropes that are sounded that are bound to be quite different from orthodox, Catholic, and even some charismatic traditions. Would it be a stretch to say that, within some set parameters, we’re simply not the most diverse group of people in the world so perhaps it shouldn’t surprise us that the books come out thematically similar?

Where do we go from here?

I think this is where we need to begin doing some reading outside of fiction. This is where we need to begin reading philosophy and theology, core texts that deal with the “big issues.” And we need to see what resonates with us.

Look at Asher Lev. One part of his apprenticeship as an artist is to read The Art Spirit by Robert Henri. In the newest Image journal (which we’ll talk about later this week), Greg Wolfe talks about the impact Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain had on Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, and Flannery O’Connor. What “big ideas” are we challenged by? Are we reading Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard, or Albert Borgmann or even responding to something like Edward Wilson’s Consilience or something like the book I mentioned yesterday, Bowling Alone.

I saw this a lot at the Colorado Christian Writers Conference. When I asked writers to boil the take home value of their book down to a sentence (even that notion is up for debate, by the way), nobody had much new to say. That’s not to say those books can’t be written and can’t be impressive, but you’re simply fighting the crowd.

Back to the Old Comments Server

I liked the old Haloscan comment server better so I resurrected it and a lot of the old conversation is back for those browsing the archives. I've added a footer link to the discussion board though so we should not be at a loss for how to talk to one another.

Next Book Discussion

September 13-17 we'll be discussing Mark Salzman's Lying Awake. We had, what I thought, was a very nice discussion of Asher Lev last month. The only thing that could make it better is more voices, more opinions, and you joining us. So pick up a copy and we'll see what we can learn.

Tuesday, July 06, 2004

Themes

I watched a small little film the other night called The Station Agent. Quiet and simple, it focused on the lives of three strangers who spiral into each others’ orbits. At the heart, the movie was about loneliness and isolation and the search for connection—the same way Lost in Translation was about that and the same way Wes Anderson’s brilliant Rushmore was about that.

It got me thinking—when did loneliness become our great modern theme? Because I think it is. Not only in film, but in music and books too. Bowling Alone was a recent sociologic look at the topic. Dogs of Babel is one more the more recent novels that hit the topic hard. The Passion of Reverend Nash did as well. I’m guessing this goes back to the existentialists of Camus and Sartre, but some of Hemingway’s work seems steeped in it.

If the early American literature was obsessed with the search for meaning, then this latest epoch has been focused on connection.

But that’s on the general side of things.

What about within the Christian realm? What are the themes that have captured our attention as writers and readers?

I think “connection” is still a huge one. There’s plenty of stories about unfulfilled characters who need to learn what’s “truly” important. The “unyielding” sin is another one. An otherwise noble Christian has one piece or part of her life that she just won’t turn over and her hard-heartedness causes conflict.

This is one area where I think too many of our books begin to sound alike. Even if they’re different in every other way, the take home message is nothing new. And there’s got to be lots new to talk about.

So let’s us have a brainstorming session and see if we can talk on some thematic/conflict levels (not issue levels—“abortion” or “abuse” is not a theme) about what we’d like a novel to tackle.

Friday, July 02, 2004

Discussing the New Group

The discussion is now here.

Day 5 of a New Writers Group – Ummmm, Now What?

We could continue talking about these issues forever, but at some point the actual hard work of developing this group is going to have to be done. While I still think there needs to be a least a little more discussion, it’s also time to begin getting people in place.

Before we open that door, there’s one final consideration to be discussed and that is the groups’ affiliation with publishers.

As you all know, hopefully, I work for a publishing company. In house, we’ve often discussed the question of whether it’d be worthwhile someday to run our own writing workshop. It’d be smaller and applicants would be selected based on their submitted manuscripts. Instructors would be editors and other publishing people from Bethany House and then some our authors, too. That has been discussed, but we’ve never moved on it.

A similar case could be made for hosting a writers group. In theory, we could look at bearing a greater portion of the start-up costs and in turn the group would be taken under the wing of our editorial group. This is good for writers in that their would be immediate access to editors and an “in” with a publishing house. There’d be more resources available for training and, in theory, a breadth of authors who could host clinics/workshops/etc. It would act, sort of, like a ramped-up, highly interactive version of what we’re doing here. That’s the upside, as I see it.

The downside. The group wouldn’t have the critical freedom to look at CBA books. Also, my guess is there’d be some sort of “write-of-first-refusal” agreement that we’d have to talk through. If writers worked with our editors on their manuscripts, we would need to at least have first crack at publishing them. If we turned them down, you’d be free to go elsewhere, but you wouldn’t have quite the same autonomy.

So that’s one option. It’s an interesting one. And certainly one that’s never been tried before that I know of. It’s has some benefits but some limitations as well. It would also have to be approved at levels higher than me.

The other direction is for the new writers group to break with all publishers. You could form loose associations with publishers for editors to come and do workshops, but the key here would be to be self-supporting, based on membership dues and possibly ad space on your website. It offers all the freedom and all the responsibility.

So, I just wanted to bring those ideas up.

Now is the time to begin to decide which path to choose, which direction to follow. I will have moved the conversation to a new forum called “The New Group.” From now on, we’ll keep planning conversation over here. That way the other area stays clear for more general F*i*F discussion.

Exciting times. God be with us all.

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Day 4 of a New Writers Group – Bits and Pieces, Odds and Ends

Some random thoughts, often picking up on things others have said on the boards.

Conferences
I like the idea of regional conferences and, even more so, I like the idea of small critique groups even better. I think at first they’re going to need to be run online. In time, if it makes sense, it’d be great to be able to sponsor groups geographically.

In terms of an annual event, I think your work has mostly been done for you. There are two biennial events that really hit the very heart of the vision for this group. There’s the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing. And there’s the Baylor Art and Soul Festival. (Which I technically haven’t been to, but have been told it’s Calvin Festival in Texas.) I’ll be there next year, though.

The faculty, the workshops, the atmosphere—there’s simply no need to recreate the wheel. That they are in Grand Rapids, Michigan and Waco, Texas, may not be as convenient as say, Chicago or Kansas City, but when all is said and done I think it’d be foolish (at least at first) to overlook these events.

Both Festivals run Thurs-Sat and I think it’d be possible to add either a day before or after to devote specifically to the group. But always in conjunction with the scheduled events.

Seal of Approval
I know this is art and passion and God’s calling and all, but I spent enough time in marketing to know, well, not much, but enough. Anyway, whether we like it or not, there’s power to be had in something like a seal-of-approval especially if it’s a rarity. If Oprah picked a book a week, how long would it be before they stopped making the bestsellers list?

One way the group can eventually extend its brand will be to offer a “Featured Selection.” It can’t be bought, it can’t be begged for, it needs to be earned. And I think it should be for books as a whole. Forget this CBA stuff. If Leif Enger comes out with another beauty, choose it. The goal is to actually have these mean something so that publishers will want to—say, sticker a book or something. That’s a pipe dream in a lot of ways, but it’s a solid goal, too. (Who gets to choose or vote is a talk for another day. As they say, “Details-smetails”)

Writing Reviews
There’s been some hesitancy about this one, including some self-examination about what qualifies you/us to review. To me, reviews are self-qualifying. If you write a good, fair, honest critical analysis of something that validates your opinion. I’m not talking about bashing books for the sake of it, or pitching darts at CBA in general. (I’m not even talking about choosing books that you know you’ll dislike.) More so, I’d like to see us pick up any CBA book and talk about what works, what doesn’t, and where it fits. Ideally, there could be two reviewers looking at the same piece so there’s some balance. I can’t do that on my site because I work for Bethany. It’s career suicide to criticize our authors, and a conflict of interest to praise my authors or criticize a competitors’. (I will, however, praise a competitors’ if I think it’s valid.)

God
I think I may have been unclear when I spoke about focusing solely on “craft.” Or perhaps naïve, too. Anyway, my intention was never to leave God out of this. Everything we do, everything I do (in theory) is done within the context of my faith. As Christian writers when we talk about craft one of the ENORMOUS concerns we face (and it’s one I think I tackle at F*i*F) is how do we honestly talk about faith in our books. There is tons of craft wrapped up in that question. And tons of theology too.

What I’ve seen happen, elsewhere, is that the craft is cast aside. It’s easier to talk philosophy and big issues because they’re built for discussing and as Christians we often have very strong opinions on whether there needs to be a conversion scene there or what kind of baptism this character should receive. We just can’t let that be the only talk that goes on.

Different, Not Better. But Better, Too
Finally, I want to take a moment and say that we need to focus on simply making this writers group all it can be. Anytime comparisons are made there’s a risk of setting yourself up or denigrating something else. That’s not all that necessary. We can work toward something great without belittling anyone else.

That said, there’s nothing wrong with trying to be “better.” Better by covering areas that have previously been ignored.


Tomorrow we'll talk a tiny bit about affiliations with other groups, some options for me and Bethany House, and the big question of who is going to do all this work.

Confluence of Art and Theology

The Brehm Center at Fuller Theological has some interesting programs. Not much on the writing side of things, but otherwise a comprehensive intersection of faith and art.