f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: 06/01/2005 - 07/01/2005

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

Thursday, June 30, 2005

Under the Surface

Were you able to see the sins of my past and present, you would probably not trust me to buy you a soft drink let alone think that I was an appropriate choice to be acquiring fiction for a Christian publisher.

The remarkable part, though, is God’s okay with it. (So far, at least.)

The point isn’t that my sins are so much worse than yours—though they are, because they are mine and I am chief among all sinners. The point is that God, through the cleansing blood of his Son, is the only one truly able to forget my sins. Humans, me included, we tally sins or worse, weigh them. We’ve developed a complex calculus for which sins can be mentioned in public, which require special confession, which should never be spoken about, and which may not actually apply to us.

And we carry that over into our fiction because we’re fallen and we’ve got no other option. We’ve all a bit of Pharisee in our heart, I think, and an eagle eye for those stepping outside the law our calculus defines. It’s the easiest place to fixate, because these are the visible things, those things on the surface.

The drinking.
The swearing.
The unmentionable body parts.
The improper political sign in your yard.
The wrong music on your iPod.
The step-kids and ex-spouses.
The lingering lawsuit.

These are the things that, to evoke the ghost of Hester Prynne, are easy to brand on someone’s chest.

It’s a little bit harder, nay impossible, to see the knot of murder in someone’s heart, or the flame of adultery in their eye. And I’m not sure we like to either because that begins to implicate us. I am not holy as my Father is holy. I’ve probably had an impure thought just in the writing of this post.

The calculus that manages to include these sins, however, does something extraordinary—it turns us into an “other.” We’re suddenly outside that comfy clan of “good Christians.” We’re a goat in the face of such calculus. We have to be. That’s the whole point of Gethsemane and Golgotha.

“Other” is simply not a concept that fits well into Jesus’ ministry. Yes, there’s the final judgment, that ultimate sorting still to come, but our call I think is to discover, reconcile, and repent of the legion of sins in our heart and give hope to others that doing the same themselves is worthwhile.

Call Me Rosencrantz...or Guildenstern

Slate's pithy discussion of the somewhat anomalous summer occurrence. I like this line: "How did a nation come to expect free Shakespeare? And why must we watch it in the park?"

I have a bit of a Hamlet-fixation and one day dream of participating at some level in a low-rent production... despite limited acting skills. I figure I could be Bernardo or Marcellus or some such nobody. (For a rollicking tale of just such an experience please catch In the Bleak Midwinter, Kenneth Branagh's true love letter to the Bard. A minor gem you might have missed.) (And if you're going to watch Hamlet on film, I recommend the 2000 version starring Ethan Hawke. Hamlet as Gen-X slacker works better than you might think.)

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Blather

If I can riff (blatantly steal) again from David Dark for a moment let me inject some music lyrics into the proceedings. Off of REM’s Green here’s a snippet of “World Leader Pretend”

This is my world
And I am world leader pretend
This is my life
And this is my time
I have been given the freedom
To do as I see fit
It's high time I've razed the walls that I've constructed

Now, besides this being the verse a friend spray-painted on his freshman dorm wall as his personal signifier, it’s also a song with commentary on what Michael Stipe thinks we’ve become as a culture. Namely self-centered isolationists who retreat behind walls rather than face the world in discussion, debate, and conversation.

The question I’d like to ask is who are we letting in behind the walls? Who are we enjoined with against the “enemy” our there? Because those like-minded combatants will tell us much about ourselves, I believe.

In 2001, an ARIS study showed that 76.5% of Americans self-identified as Christian. Or roughly 228,000,000 people. Not sure about you, but I don’t see 228,000,000 behind my walls.

Well, the first group you’ve got to question is the Catholics. They’re 40% or so of that 228,000,000. Are we behind the wall with them? (Pre-John Kerry, probably not. Oh, but that Mel Gibson is dreamy.) And the Episcopalians have been having some interesting votes in their denomination. Oh, and that branch of Presbyterians who ordain women. And those odd folks across town with their hands in the air and their weird prayer languages and the flag waving during service. And First Methodist who host a Halloween party. And Mildred across the street who, frankly, knows a bit too much about reggae, if you know what I mean.

Ah, breathing room. This is much nicer.

Hmmmm, but that young man over there has a tattoo. And she was divorced. And I know who they voted for. Sure we basically believe the same thing, but do we? Is this an influence I’m comfortable with around me…and my kids?

Where’s the mortar?

And so it goes. For all of us. I’ve got my trowel ready for this 4th of July weekend when we celebrate America’s biblical mandate to exist.

It’s comfortable. Speaking to those who you know will nod and smile. Or yelling at those who you know will simply ignore you anyway. Black-and-white. You know what to expect. (And we’ve created our own cozy little community right here, haven’t we? *gets smiles and nods in return*)

What however if we never got that ARIS data? What if we stopped “self-identifying”? What if I tell you that my name is Dave Long…and that’s all you know about me?

And with that I will abruptly stop. No clue where I was going with all this. And it obviously doesn’t relate much to fiction. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll tie it together. Because it’s going to get to the heart of character and what one commenter yesterday talked about—the marshmallow way we too often approach sin in our books.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The Other "Other"

Yesterday we talked briefly about how we conceive of our villains. Are they cardboard stereotypes that may reveal something unpleasant about current American Christian culture? Are they created merely in the name of entertainment and shouldn't be seen as representing more than that? As writers do we even get to decide?

Today I'd like to talk about the demographics of our books. Not of the readers to whom our books are going, but the actual demographics of the books themselves. One observation is that, like ABA (we're not alone in this) our demographics don't mirror society anymore. I believe the last census showed that Caucasian America now makes up less than 50% of the American population.

I have no firm statistics, but I don't think it's shocking to anybody to say that our books don't reflect that diversity. This becomes a chicken-egg debate. Our readership is primarily white so that will mean the characters they most often choose to read about and identify with will also be white. Or, our writers are primarily white, so the characters they most often write about are also white, thus appealing to a white audience.

Things get stickier when you begin trying to uncover reasons for these things...and I'm not sure if I'm smart enough or daring enough to do it. Racial segregation within the church is one of the most frustrating and damning issues facing us in American today. The factors at work go so far beyond mere pigmentation into culture and class that most "solutions" seem like Band-Aids or pipe dreams.

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What I'm interested in, over the next couple of days, is distillation. If we took all the Christian characters in all the CBA novels and distilled them into a single representation, what would that person look like? Because I think that's what many of us in American Christianity are worried about today. We're protective of the Gospel. We want/need to defend it. We want very much to play our part in saying, "Sheep, sheep, sheep, goat, sheep, goat, sheep."

I don't think it's a stretch to see the characters in our fiction as our implicit representation of "acceptability." The sheep-iest of the sheep. A Platonically ideal ewe. Not that we're saying you can't be a Christian if you don't look like this...but, boy, we'd be much happier if you did.

As always, bear in mind that I'm as much of the problem in this as the rest of you. I'm not writing from some exalted place, some rare air where I look past appearances and my own private store of prejudices. We're called to more than that, though. Difficult as it may turn out.

Tilting at Windmills?

Are things really changing in CBA fiction? That's a legitimate question and it's the topic of Mark Bertrand's latest post.

Monday, June 27, 2005

The “Other” in Christian Fiction

There was a novel I read recently that attempted to vilify a character by insinuating that he was…

We can end that sentence in such a variety of ways. The character could be…

  • gay
  • pro-choice
  • pro-stem cell research
  • a member of the ACLU
  • Al Qaeda
  • new-agey
  • a liberal Episcopalian
  • a Clinton supporter
  • a Rodham-Clinton supporter
  • Michael Moore
  • that pink Teletubby
There’s a boat-load more things we could come up with that would instantly be recognized by the industry as casting instant bad feelings on a character. My point here today certainly isn’t to argue whether these things are actually good or bad. Instead, I want to linger over the wisdom of, as a subculture, whole-cloth acceptance of these generalized definitions of “other-ness.”

Let’s take Al Qaeda as an extreme example. It would be absurd at this point—unless one wanted to get the attention of homeland security—to write a heroic portrait of a member of Al Qaeda. They are evil villains, pure and simple, right? And that’s how we should show them in fiction.

This shouldn’t trouble you then.

Villains exist in books. There’s no getting around that. The trouble is when we begin to conflate the villains in books for villains in real life. Or fail to see any reason other than treating them in that way. "They are and nothing more than ."

If you’re willing and able to make the leap from Democrat to villain…I’m not sure I want to finish that sentence.

This week we’re going to spend some time looking at “others” in relation to Christian fiction. This was fueled a bit by David Dark’s Gospel According to America. He dealt with the issues a lot more eloquently than I will. The line between our writing and real life are going to blur…because they need to. We can’t fill a book with stereotypes and then feign ignorance, hold up our hands, and claim no responsibility for its implicit message. Likewise we can’t only hold up a mirror to our small bit of culture and pretend we’ve captured a vision for the entire world.

Tomorrow we’ll talk about the power of trying on another man’s shoes.

Friday, June 24, 2005

Too Young to Remember Jimmy Carter: Thoughts of a Publishing Intern

"How about this one: A dead guy riding around headless on a horse?"

"Nope. Already been done. What else have you got?"

"Oh! The public will eat this one up! There's this wizard kid, see, at this wizard school--"

"Are you joking?"

"Okay...this is a good one! Imagine this world with little creatures with hairy feet, and there’s a magic ring with strange powers--"

"Two words for you: Elijah Wood. C’mon! I thought that you were supposed to be good at this kind of stuff."

"Well, I’m sor-ry. It’s a little hard to think of new things when you’ve been doing this for centuries."

"Excuses, excues. Well, if you want my soul, you are going to have to do a lot better."

------

Okay, so maybe you wouldn’t go as far as selling your soul to the Devil for a killer story idea, but there are times when trying to think of a "new" idea to write about is as hard as watching a whole Richard Simmons workout.

Alas, there is nothing new under the sun. Yes, thank you Solomon for that disturbing comfort. So if there is nothing new under the sun, then why keep writing? Before you even start, your story has already been written. It has been dissected a million times and written from every angle possible. The only thing you can do is to write the story better than the last person. Hmmmm. I guess we writers really are crazy.

In any event, there are times when ideas are sparse. So if you are in a place where you need a little spark to get the ink flowing, just take a look at the people around you. I am betting there are some pretty interesting characters (heh heh) lurking in your periphery.

Otherwise, below are some resources on how others solve their writer’s block problems. Have a good weekend.

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Links!

Seven Steps to Beating Writer's Block

It’s so bad, it is made it into the encyclopedia!

"Shed" it…literally

The Life You Save May Be Your Own

Speaking of Faith recently featured a conversation with Paul Elie, author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own.

Search Query

Someone recently found this blog searching for "NASCAR Romance/Fiction Novels."

I don't approve of that.

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

A Break

I'm taking a break for a bit here. Stuff, well, stuff every once in a while gets a bit too complicated for me to put aside. And it's probably better that I don't post here during those times.

Monday, June 20, 2005

The Champion

The publisher you want to be with is not (necessarily) the one who offers you the biggest check upfront.

The publisher you want to be with is not (necessarily) the one who promises you the cover of Publishers Weekly.

The publisher you want to be with is not (necessarily) the one who gives you creative control over your cover.

The publisher you want to be with is not (necessarily) the one who praises your writing and makes you feel good about yourself.

These things are all well and good. But only if they are symptoms of something else.

The publisher you want to be with has a champion inside its walls for you and your work.

A champion or advocate understands what you’re trying to do, the message you’re trying to put to paper. At the same time, they can give you a sense of perspective about how best to reach that goal. They’ll be honest with you when you’re off course because they have your best interests at heart.

As well, they’re working inside the company to share you vision with all the other pieces and parts of the publishing company. A company is made up of individuals with all their idiosyncratic likes and dislikes. A book that resonates in editorial may make the director of marketing cringe for some reason. Or may get overlooked by a publicist.

It’s easiest to think of champions from the editorial side. But people in all departments can play the part. I can’t think of a book that’s done well without the strong support of someone in house.

I am an advocate for my books. So far, I’ve not brought a single title to our acquisitions meeting that I didn’t feel strongly about. There may be a time where I can tell a book works without being its greatest supporter. At that point, I’d either find someone else to champion the book or give serious thought to its place with our company.

Finding a place at a publisher is hard. The last thing you want to do is find yourself at a publisher for no reason but the money. This is a shared experience putting a book together. It’s good to have somebody by your side as you make your way. I could be that person for you. I can’t be that person for everybody.

Friday, June 17, 2005

On the Fast Track Toward Remediation: Thoughts of a Publishing Intern

Finding time to write is a pain-in-the-butt. Between this lovely internship and the other jobs I work to keep a roof over my head and to afford my education, I find that carving time out of my schedule to write (and only write) never happens.

I feel guilty while sitting at a local Dunn Brothers' coffee house, sipping my White Chocolate-Vanilla-Caramel IceCrema, writing furiously on my Office Depot pad of white paper while dishes crowd the sink back at the apartment, and filth burrows into the carpet. Or I should be planning the next session of my soccer league nights or paying attention to relationships that have been put on hold for the past month. But not writing. No. That is a frivolity.

But I don't think it is. To many, yes, it can seem superfluous, but to me it's how I stay sane (or at least try to stay sane). Yet it is the one thing I never find myself doing (maybe that explains a few things about for some). "If I just get this done, then I can start writing," is what I tell myself. But then "this" becomes "these things" which take all day, and by the time I'm ready to write, I am dead on my feet.

I'm sure many of you can relate. If you can't, I want your life. But in any event, I am not sure of the point I am trying to make. I think I may be yelling at myself: just write! Even if it's crap, just write! It doesn't have to be good--it doesn't have to be long. Just Write.

If you found my yelling anything but helpful, I apologize. Next time may be better.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Will to Publish

Many of you have expressed concern for my mental health after the last few posts. Honestly, I’m not nearing melt down. I self-medicate with 70% Valrhona and the adrenaline rush of tongue-lashing the intern.

She’s gone for the day now, though, so I guess I’ll hunker in for one more mild rant.

Just like the “will to power” hasn’t turned out so well for us, neither has what I’d like to call “the will to publish.” Granted you’re less likely to end up ruled by a despot in a kooky hat with the “will to publish,” but the possible ramifications to your writing are dire.

  • The will to publish means spending more time searching for a formula for fiction, an executable equation, than practicing the creation of a beating heart in a single one of your characters.
  • The will to publish means rejecting rejection letters.
  • The will to publish leads to stalking of editors at writing conferences.
  • The will to publish means submitting completely inappropriate proposals (poetry for instance) to whomever seems to have a fax line or email address at a publisher (whether they publish poetry or not).
  • The will to publish means esteeming your own work, rather than dedicating yourself to sussing out its flaws.
  • The will to publish often means you don’t read. Or offer to critique.
  • The will to publish, in Christian circles, is sometimes mistaken for the leading of the Holy Spirit in terms of which publisher NEEDS to see your proposal.
  • The will to publish finishes Bird By Bird and is contented that they’re far down the right path.
  • The will to publish finds little joy or wonder in books.
Frankly, we all have a little bit of it in us. I didn’t get published accidentally. My editor did not creep into my house during one of my luxurious nightly bubble-baths and email himself my manuscript. I submitted the stupid thing.

There’s a sense of perspective, though, that’s sometimes lost in the desperate race to see our words on the printed page. Our industry does much to fuel that race. I hope we can also do much to offer perspective. You are God’s children, creators made in His image. What you put to paper is a splinter of what it took for Him to breathe us into being. There is you comfort, your joy. A bound book is its reward, a testament to many things, but the writing is of first importance. It’s where we can meet God, if we can suppress the will to publish long enough to hear Him in the echo of clattering keys or the scratch of a pen.

“Let there be light.”

And there was light.

From the Latest Christian ETailing

'LETTERS TO LUKE' NAMED TOP BOOK BY INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS
Letters to Luke (Little Dove Press) by retired Louisiana physician Joe E. Holoubek has won the 2005 Independent Publisher Award for Religious Fiction in the eighth annual Independent Publisher Book Awards program. The award was presented June 3 in New York City.
Holoubek's book, a historical novel and love story, was one of 2,200 entries in 60 categories from more than 1,500 publishers around the world. The book brings the gospels to life in letters from a first-century physician who would become known as St. Luke.

The Independent Publisher (IPPY) Book Awards is organized by Independent Publisher Online, formerly Small Press Magazine.

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Sounds interesting but I'm not sure what to make of the $40 retail price.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

An Active Prejudice

We all have our biases in life. The word so often has a deeply negative connotation, but sometimes they work to our advantage. I am biased against milk chocolate. If I’m given a choice between milk and dark, I go dark and am satisfied 98% of the time. Sure there’s times the milk chocolate might have been imported from Switzerland and the dark chocolate from Newark, NJ, but overall my instincts, honed over years of experience, help me make the right decision.

This post is a confession of a bias I hold and so do many of my publishing colleagues.

I’m (very) wary of self-published books.

I want to be respectful here, because I know many of you have taken the self-published route (and I have a heard a large number of the success stories) but my first gut reaction whenever I’m pitched a self-published project is to make one of those leery “Mmmmm,” sounds that Marge Simpson often uses on Homer.

Self-publishing absolutely has its place. It’s ideal, I think, for niche non-fiction books for which there will be a targeted, sustained, but small audience. Health condition books are an example of this.

I’m less convinced of its efficacy for fiction. And I’m doubly hard to convince that a self-published book is likely to be republished by BHP.

The first reason is that by self-publishing I feel you’ve already been turned down my multiple publishers and have decided to pursue this route. What are the chances that a book multiple other publishers have rejected will work for us?

The second reason is that most self-published works, when submitted, don’t look so hot. The editing is rough. The typesetting is basic and unimpressive. The covers are often uninspiring. You are quite likely better off submitting your story in manuscript form to me. It’ll feel fresher, like it has more potential.

Finally, this intractability of mine is getting worse not better. Unfair as it sounds, you’re not just battling to sell your own book, you’re faced with the ghosts of all those rejected self-published novels that came before yours.

That said, there’s always the story of the small press or vanity press who first published some soon-to-be-mega-star. John Grisham started that way, I guess. Tom Clancy. Which goes to show that editors know nothing. We’re just like you though—operating on biases and hunches that are designed to make our life easier and cut down on unnecessary work.

I hope you all prove me wrong. I really hope you’re the next John Grisham. I will still take a look at your work. But I want to be upfront…you’re facing an uphill climb.

Terrific Idea

NY Public Library offering audio book downloads.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Rejection Week

It’s like the Valentine’s Day Massacre here.

After a number of projects logjammed my time for a couple of weeks, I got backed up on submissions and am now trying to clear out the works. It’s not a pretty sight.

It’s evident that one of the many things I will need to pray over in the years to come in my career is patience and compassion. There’s a knee-jerk frustration that emerges when multiple proposals fail on multiple levels.

I’m trying to figure out where the system is breaking down. Because it’s one thing to receive an unsolicited proposal from a first time novelist through the blog that’s rough and not-ready-for-prim-time. It seems like it’s quite another thing to receive a proposal that’s of virtually similar quality from an agent. That, to me, is a system breakdown.

No offense writers, but we need to be harder on you. YOU need to be harder on you. First drafts shouldn’t cut it. Dialogue manacled in cliché shouldn’t cut it. Inauthentic genre books plotted and detailed from Hollywood movies and not hardcore, intensive research shouldn’t cut it. Voiceless narrative without the punch of imaginative personality shouldn’t cut it.

Hopefully this may serve as a bit of a wake-up call. I have never scored high on “Mercy” during spiritual gifts inventories and my rejections are getting terse and to-the-point. Nobody wants to get one of those. I’m tired of writing them.

Let’s work harder folks.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Good Quote

From The Gospel According to America (which I finally finished after a short hiatus):
“As aspiring learners of the good and the true, we can desire challenging stories that will edify and unsettle, illuminate and entertain, and not necessarily give up what we might call the stupider pleasures of cheap sentimentality. But if we’re uninterested in anything other than eye candy, we might do well to rethink our media consumption and our understanding of goodness. Madeleine L’Engle once helpfully observed that artistic expression is only worth of the description “Christian” if it’s good. And if it good and therefore truthful, it is, to the believing mind, Christian, unless we believe there’s some fragment of truth or beauty (some secular molecule) that doesn’t belong to the Lord.”


Friday, June 10, 2005

Confessions of an English Diva: Thoughts of a Publishing Intern

Can an author write something that is purely for entertainment’s sake? Something that has no agendas? No flagrant worldviews? No gospel message? No hidden meanings or symbolism?

I honestly don’t think so. True, one can write an entertaining piece that holds no deep and heavy characters, situations and conflicts; but you are always relaying a message. An old high school teacher once told me you can NEVER not communicate. Even when you are dead, pale, and still, the lack of life and movement conveys to everyone that you are indeed dead—the dead you is still communicating.

I think stories operate the same way. An utter lack of morals and discipline/consequences in a story communicates that an immoral like is a justifiable way to live. A character who rejects God and leads a fulfilling life gives the impression that God is superfluous. Even Star Wars (no cracks, Dave), a film meant to be purely entertainment, has an inherent religious message disguised as “The Force.”

Even if our story and characters are completely bland, we are communicating that we are horrible writers and what sort of company would honestly publish something as tasteless as this?

No matter what we write, we are always communicating more than just a story and words on the page. Our worldview, morals, priorities, beliefs, etc. are all represented somehow. If not, we wouldn’t have much of a story, and our characters would be flat. So what do we do with this as writers?

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Day 4 with Greg Garrett: Writing Q&A Part 2

How familiar are you with the CBA industry?

Very. I’ve written several nonfiction books for a CBA publisher and had ongoing talks with several publishers about the particular challenges of publishing literary fiction and nonfiction for a CBA audience.


What do you think of the unwritten CBA prohibitions (language, graphic sex, unrepented sins) from both a writer's need to be honest in portraying real life and a Christian's need to honor God?

With all respect to those who don’t want to expose themselves to the big bad world by being exposed to bad language, sexuality, or practices of which they disappove, I think it makes for bad storytelling and bad theology. John Milton, the great Puritan writer, wrote a famous essay opposing censorship because he feared what he called “cloistered virtue,” an unrealistic and sometimes immature view of one’s own holiness based on the fact that one hid oneself away from even “virtual” temptation.

At Baylor, when I teach Magnolia—which is a profoundly religious film that literally changes the lives of students every time I show it—I’m always approached later by at least one morally outraged young lady who says that she can’t see why she had to watch such a movie, since in real life she would never choose to be around “such people”—that is, people who are hurting, and swearing, and medicating themselves with alcohol or drugs or sex—and certainly she herself would never do such things. And what I try to say, as gently as I can, is that we’re called to be in the world among such people, and that no one can say for sure what we’re capable of if we’re hurting enough.

I myself have done things of which I’m ashamed, and I cannot honestly tell my story without talking of those things. So simply on that note, it seems tragic to me that most CBA presses wouldn’t have published Anne Lamott and Lauren Winner’s autobiographical books that contain those elements, when clearly these books speak so persuasively to the “unchurched.” I’d venture that more people have been brought to God through those secular publications than through Christian publishers, which too often seem to be publishing only for other Christians.

I know it’s a tough thing, that the CBA bookstores have serious problems with books that might drive away their customers. But my sense is that with the hunger for faith and spirituality, a new day may be dawning. CBA publishers are talking more about fiction from a Christian worldview than about Christian fiction. My last CBA book sold half its copies in Barnes & Noble stores, and my editor told me the other day they’re already talking with the secular chains about my spiritual autobiography coming out next year, which I’m proud to say is being published by a CBA publisher, warts and all. Although I probably will have to be wary of, you know. The big bad words.

And naked people.

Sigh.

But here’s my bottom line as an artist and as a theologian: You can’t tell the parable of the Good Samaritan without somebody getting beaten bloody, and you can’t have the parable of the Prodigal Son without the riotous living. Fall, forgiveness, redemption. That’s the way story works, and it’s the way our Christian story works. I don’t think you have to be gratuitous and strive to offend, but I think there are worse things in the world than being offended—like forgetting there’s a world out there hurting and needing our help.


That said, could you ever write, intentionally or not, a "CBA" novel?

Maybe. Not intentionally. Since I’m a literary writer, I’m not writing novels for any audience. I’m only trying to be true to myself and my vision of the story, and then marketing the book comes after. If I wrote genre fiction, it’d be a different thing.

My first three novels, although all have a strong Christian element, also all have narrators who can’t be constrained from dropping the big bad words. That’s the way they talk, it’s who they are, and although a CBA publisher asked me about “cleaning up” Free Bird, it can’t be done. But the next two novels could easily be published by a CBA house, and I’ve been, to be honest, so much happier with my experience at NavPress and in talks with other Christian publishers than I’ve been with New York publishing, I’d think seriously about it, as long as the books would be at least as accessible to ABA readers as to those who buy exclusively in CBA stores.


How crucial do you think short stories are to developing as a novelist? You've written both. I'm sure your students write stories. Do you consider that form a necessary apprenticeship or a completely different form?

I don’t think short stories are crucial to learning the novelist’s craft. I think you could also say, “I’m going to sit down and start writing a novel. And if it’s not any good, I’ll write another, and another, until I learn the craft.” But short stories let you fail more quickly and on a smaller scale, so that you may be able to learn basic elements of story more quickly. They also offer the possibility of early publication that can help bring recognition and help build up a creditable portfolio. The downside, of course, is that very few people read short stories and few houses publish them as books, so for most folks they’re a step that doesn’t have much permanence. I still haven’t published a collection of stories, although I’ve written my share of really good ones. Unless there’s a marketing hook—youth, exotic good looks, a distinct cultural take—few publishers are even interested these days.

I do think that short stories are worth writing for themselves. A good short story can rock your world even more intensely than a good novel because it happens to you all at once, like a movie. And although I’m happy to have turned to novels, I don’t rule out writing short stories again. It’s certainly not something I feel I’ve outgrown.


Current projects?

This summer I’m working on my spiritual autobiography, which I’m calling Crooked Lines, and which chronicles the four years in my life, 2000-2004, when I decided I was going to live and God was revealed to me anew. It’s due out next August from Piñon Press. I’m also working on The Voice, a contemporary language Bible for Thos. Nelson/World, with Chris Seay, Lauren Winner, Brian McLaren, and Donald Miller, among others. I’m doing work there that plays to my strengths in storytelling, and getting a chance to work on the formative stories of my life and my art. What a blessing. The gospels will be out next spring, and the rest of the Bible in bits and pieces for the next three years.

My agent sent out Sanctuary to two interested editors last month, and I have two more novels drafted, just waiting to enter the line. And I’ve been journaling and thinking for the past two years about the next novel, which will be a retelling of the Jacob and Esau story with two sons competing for the love and approval of their father against the backdrop of the Vietnam War.

I want to continue to write nonfiction about spirituality and popular culture, so I just finished up proposals on South Park and on video games. If one or both of those attracts a publisher, that will be my writing work for next year. Then I’ll probably turn to the Esau/Jacob novel in the summer of 2007, when, God willing, I’ll have graduated from the seminary and be able to write something just for the story of it.

My thanks to Greg for taking time out of his schedule to chat with us.
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Tomorrow: the intern speaks.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Day 3 with Greg Garrett: Writing Q&A pt. 1

Clay has a lot of anti-heroic tendencies. Did you ever feel in danger of creating a character readers just might not like?

With Brad Cannon, the narrator in Cycling, my second novel, I thought it was a very real danger. With both Clay and Brad, though, I tried to create what I think of as extenuating circumstances in their back stories that would give the reader some sympathy and have them rooting for them to snap out of it. Free Bird begins with two newspaper columns that put Clay’s life into relief: ten years ago he left his lucrative law practice to came back home to rural north Carolina after the death of his wife and child in a car crash, and he never left. Clay’s progress through the book then is one where we’re rooting for his good self to emerge, and we see flashes of it along the way—sort of a two steps forward, one step back thing. As long as readers have hope for change, they can keep reading.


Is the "road trip" novel one of those things like jazz and baseball that's an American form? I know it's based on the ancient quest/journey narratives, but isn't there something quintessentially "American" about the road-trip?

America has made highways and cars a central part of our modern mythology. Like the old Westerns, you can saddle your trusty steed and travel to some place where you can be a different person, if that’s what you need. Free Bird is very traditional, in the sense that it moves from East to West, from civilization to wilderness (which is the pattern we’ve followed as a nation and seen in novels like The Grapes of Wrath). It’s also traditional in that it has a picaresque plot, which means the novel is made up of one sequence after another as Clay meets people along the way and deals with external and internal conflicts. It’s structured very differently than Cycling, which almost all takes place within twenty miles of the narrator’s house.


Do you consider your book a "southern" novel? How about a "Christian" novel?

Free Bird is Southern to the extent that I was raised in the South until I was ten or eleven, and my sense of language and storytelling remains very Southern. It also features characters who are very Southern—the mother and maiden aunts, Clay, and Clay’s stepfather, Ray all talk and act Southern—polite, even when they’re being rude, submerging things they can’t dare to talk about. It’s also Southwestern, though, in that the Southern elements about politeness and how we act in company and how our families and our history determine who we are clashes with the Western notion I mentioned earlier about how, when we enter this vast landscape, we leave those past things behind and we come to a place where no one knows us and we can try to be somebody new.

Free Bird is indeed a very Christian novel, although I would not have described myself as very Christian when I was writing it. I was suffering through some of the worst depression in my life as I worked on the book, and I wasn’t part of a church community, nor did I have much of a faith life or any hope for the future, for that matter. If you’d asked me straight out, I probably would have told you that I was “historically Christian.” I’m pleased that it turned out this way, especially now that I’m ridiculously devout and studying for the priesthood, but honestly, I was just trying to write a novel about a character I cared about.

And yet it’s clearly a Christian novel about forgiveness, redemption, and rebirth, and it’s full of Christian phraseology and symbolism. One critic asked me about all the scenes of communion/Eucharist in the book and I just said, “Wha huh?” And of course the climactic action of the book—not to give away anything, but if any of you folks out there are hoping the climactic scene is a car chase or gunfight, you should probably read another book—the climactic scene is a confession, an actual confession to an actual Catholic priest. I didn’t plan that, and it is over sangria in a bar instead of in a confessional, but still. It just became clear as I neared the end that it was the only way that the character could ever be healed. He had to confess, be forgiven, and then he would have the chance to do better.


I consider Clay to be "Christ-haunted" in this book. He just can't escape. That paints an interesting portrait of a loving, relentless God who refuses to give someone up. What vision of "God" did you want to share in this book.

As I mentioned, I had no conscious notion that I was writing a religious book, so I really had no interest in promoting any vision of God. I was telling a story about a broken person’s journey back toward wholeness. Since I was writing as a broken person myself, though, I’m sure I had the hope that there is a God who loves us and won’t give up on us, who loves us as much when we hurt each other as when we win the Nobel Peace Prize. That’s the God that seems to emerge: plot is always a series of coincidences (the plot of our lives is also simply a skein of coincidences), but the coincidences in Free Bird seem to show that there is a plan for us that we can’t escape simply by running. Most importantly, Clay meets good people who are the face of God for him, who call him back into communion not so much by talking God-talk but by living Jesus-lives. If Clay becomes a hero along his way—and I think he does—it’s by emulating the Christ-like lives of those he encounters along the way, especially the example of his stepfather, Ray, the true moral center of the book.


Name a novel or two that have been instructive in your writing development?

I went through phases in my twenties when I was learning to write where I was interested first in Stephen King, then in Anne Tyler, then in John Irving, then in Margaret Atwood. I read all their books and emulated their work, usually badly, as I sought my own voice. The works of my teacher Robert Olen Butler, especially his Pulitzer-winning collection of short stories, A Good Scent From A Strange Mountain, helped teach me how to write. The novels of Walker Percy, especially The Moviegoer and Love in the Ruins, and of Richard Ford, especially The Sportswriter, convinced me that writing about broken men could be done with integrity and beauty. And the works of Cormac McCarthy challenged me to write with both emotion and innovation. I don’t read much new fiction, because I find it hard to read while I’m writing—and because I’m a fulltime teacher and fulltime student—but in recent years I’ve very much admired Peace Like a River and the short stories of Jhumpa Lahiri.
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Go to Day 4 of our conversation with Greg Garrett

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Day 2 with Greg Garrett: Baylor and Art and Soul Q&A

Give us a bit of background into Art and Soul and your part in it. When did it start? What's your vision for it?

In 1998, I was, with my colleague Michael Beaty, co-organizer of a nationwide conference at Baylor on Southern literature, “The Christ-Haunted South.” My one great contribution, if it can be called that, was to suggest that instead of just doing an academic conference where scholars came and presented their research on Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, we also include readings and talk with real Southern writers. We invited Will Campbell and Dennis Covington, two great heroes of mine, and Rick Barton and I also read and participated. There was an incredible synergy and the sessions were well attended by the university and Central Texas communities, So Michael and I proposed that Baylor do an annual program on religion and the arts where we’d bring together a community of writers, scholars, and readers. The Baylor administration was generous in their support, both in providing funding and in giving me a ton of release time to administrate what would become Art & Soul. It was much much much harder than teaching, but I was able to use my acquaintance with writers across the country to bring in a number of people who generously donated their time or took reduced appearance fees to get us off the ground because they agreed that we were doing something important.

Our first formal program was in the spring of 2000, and we got national attention because John Grisham was one of our major speakers. As you may know, he never does public appearances, except for signings at the few small independent bookstores in the South that supported him when he wasn’t famous. We sold out Waco Hall, the largest auditorium on the Baylor campus, we had to do a press conference before he went on, and when he walked onto the stage, it was like something out of Hard Day’s Night. When John came off the stage, he took me by the arm and told me, “Let’s go. Don’t stop for anything.” And I figured out quickly what he meant—and why he doesn’t do public appearances. I will never again be on someone’s security detail. But it was great, because here was this serious Baptist—and one of the world’s most popular writers—talking about how his faith and his fiction intermingled.

Over the years, we’ve had lots of terrific writers, artists, and musicians at Art & Soul—Annie Lamott, Kathleen Norris, Bruce Hornsby, Margaret Becker, Lee Smith, Robert Olen Butler, Bret Lott, Lauren Winner. We’ve had editors, and scholars, and lots of interested bystanders. The most important thing, though, was that we were fulfilling the aim I had at the outset, which was that we help create a community of people who take faith and art seriously. When we started, there was a very clear sense in most circles that you could be one thing or the other—a serious Christian (or Jew, or whatever) or a serious writer (or poet, or filmmaker, or whatever). So we’ve contributed to the conversation that you’re having at Faith in Fiction, and that Image magazine and its conferences and workshops promote, and, although they’re more geared to CBA writing and we to ABA, that the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College has done so successfully.

This year was the first year where I wasn’t involved as the planning and driving force. I tried to step down two years ago for health reasons—remember the depression I mentioned?—but circumstances didn’t permit at the time. Now we’ve gone to every other year, which I regret since with an every year schedule we can do a better job of building community. But one of the things I’ve learned is that when you stop away from something, you step away. Art & Soul 2005 was a great festival, and Baylor’s commitment to the program is a strong one. So mark your calendars for 2007, when we’ll welcome—well, lots of cool people, I’m sure.


Describe the atmosphere at Baylor for us. Seems like an interesting place...this kind of waystation poised between the secular (like my college--Penn State) and the ordained (i.e. my wife's alma mater of Taylor.) It obviously allows for an event like Art and Soul. Does sustaining a Christian worldview ever raise tension on the campus?

I came to Baylor in 1989, when the university was in the midst of the Southern Baptist turf wars. Students were taping the lectures of their professors and sending them back to hometown preachers, and the fundamentalists had gone on record saying that of all the institutions in Baptist life they considered Baylor the crown jewel they most wanted to take over. I don’t have to tell you that if the fundamentalists had taken over Baylor it would have become the world’s largest Baptist Bible college—but not a thriving community of scholars and strivers where faithis valued and questions are welcome. So that’s the backdrop everyone has to remember when they think about Baylor: Within my Baylor lifetime there was serious danger that very religious people would take over the university and, for all intents and purposes, dismantle it.

So there’s always a tension between those who want the university to veer more toward the religious side, since that’s our historic identity and part of the vision plan we’ve embraced, and those who fear that religion will dilute the academic mission of the place. I have friends on both sides, and I’m pretty squarely in the middle. I value freedom and diversity in belief and, but think Baylor needs to be a Christian university to have anything distinctive to offer. The world doesn’t need another Princeton or Duke. It needs a great Protestant university.

That said, the tension always has to be negotiated. Students without a strong religious background often feel excluded in some ways at Baylor, and I fear that ardent evangelism often drives such people farther away from God, rather than closer. Yet everyone has a desire for the sacred, and God speaks through writing and creativity, which is what makes events like Art and Soul so valuable. One doesn’t need to witness about God when God is tangibly present.


Leif Enger. Kaye Gibbons. Marilynne Robinson. What makes these writers' works so particularly appealing...both to Christians and, obviously, the secular world as a whole?

The Judeo/Christian stories in the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian testament are all our stories, whether you’re a person of faith or not, and themes of failure, grace, redemption, forgiveness, and rebirth are not only at the heart of our faith but at the heart of our beings. A great story will often feature these themes even if the writer has no conscious interest in faith. And since Enger, Robinson, Gibbons and others are persons who aren’t afraid to let faith be an integral element in their stories, it seems to be that much more powerful, that much more spirit-filled. Leif’s ability to write about miracles, for example, to make them visible and believable, makes Peace Like a River a powerful and holy experience for me, not just a good read. I think a good novel by a writer of faith can be sacramental, can be like the thin places in Celtic spirituality where we are closer to the Divine.

My favorite comment from someone who read Free Bird was a guy who told me that the book made him want to be a better person. That’s a nice definition of good art with a sacred dimension—it can change us and make us see the world in a new way, even if its primary intention is simply to tell us a story using those archetypal elements.


Who are some guests you'd love to host at Art & Soul?

I’d love to have Anne Lamott, Bret Lott, and Dennis Covington back at Baylor. Of those who have not yet been to Art & Soul, I’d like to have my colleagues Donald Miller and Brian McLaren, even though their work is from CBA houses, since I think they tell great stories and they have a readership that is broader than those who only frequent CBA stores. I’d like to have filmmaker and comics writer Kevin Smith, although I’m sure if I were still in charge he’d get me in serious trouble. For that matter, I’d like to have Joss Whedon, who created Buffy (Ed note: See, it's not just me! Dave) and is now writing comics like the X-Men, and Brian Michael Bendis, who is the son of an Orthodox rabbi and who, foul-mouthed and vulgar as he often is, is a great and often moving writer struggling toward some conclusions about spirit.

Of the “old guard,” I’d like to have Anne Tyler and John Irving and John Updike, who have written some of the best novels ever about Christianity. I’d like to have Michael Chabon and some other Jewish writers. As for musicians, I’d like to have Bono, of course, Patty Griffin, and Austin singer-songwriter Bob Schneider, who is struggling toward the sacred in many of his songs. And since we’re shooting for the moon, why not Bruce Springsteen? His songs on “The Rising” are among the holiest relics we’ll leave from these past few dark years. (Ed note: See, again, it's not just me! And if Art and Soul hosts Springsteen, I may have to actually move to Texas. Dave)


Give your opinion on the value, these days, of an upper-level English degree. Who should be pursuing the Ph.D.? How about the MFA?

If you want to teach at a university, you should get a PhD. If you want extra time with your writing, you should get an MFA. But you may still need a PhD when you’re done; while schools often consider the MFA a terminal degree, few schools have large enough creative writing programs that you teach nothing but creative writing. My first semester at Baylor as the new fiction writer I taught freshman comp and British lit as well as fiction writing. Whatever you do, though, please don’t plan on making a living as a writer. I’ve published four books and I’ve been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, but if I didn’t have a day job my children would be out begging in the streets.
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Go to Day 3 of our conversation with Greg Garrett

Monday, June 06, 2005

Day 1 with Greg Garrett: Professorial and Teaching Q&A

Greg Garrett is the published author of two novels (Free Bird and Cycling), two non-fiction books (Holy Superheroes and The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix with Chris Seay), and a variety of short stories and other works. He is a professor of English at Baylor University where he teaches creative writing and a number of other classes. And he was one of the driving forces behind creating the Art and Soul festival. We spent last week talking about Free Bird and Greg was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to answer some questions.


What classes do you teach at Baylor?

I’ve taught all sorts of courses over the past fifteen years, but since these days I spend more time writing and less time teaching, I typically teach only fiction writing, film, and American literature for non-majors, my one service class. This coming year, since one of my colleagues has left the department to seek his fortunes in the journalism department, I’ll probably add our screenwriting class to that mix. I hope so. I’ve taught narrative screenwriting at the University of Oregon but not at Baylor, and I learn a lot about dialogue and plot structure whenever I think about screenplays.


In working with novice writers, are there one or two crucial problems you see students make again and again?

I find the biggest mistakes that beginning writers make have to do with forgetting about character to focus on other things, be they theme or symbolism or plot gimmicks. A story is about a compelling character or characters, and if we’re interested in the characters we’ll follow their adventures—or non-adventures—wherever they might lead.

That said, I find beginning writers are often trying too hard to emulate the works they most admire. It makes sense, since what motivates many of us to be writers is the fact that we’ve read works that have moved us and changed us. But given the way that we’re typically taught literature, we’re led to focus on theme and symbolism as ways of measuring a work’s seriousness, and while it’s true that great fiction is “about” something, it’s about the characters first or it’s just about ideas the writer wants to communicate.

I also find that beginning writers have a very simplistic idea of plot built around situation comedies and films, or around tricky or quirky endings that they think justify writing a story. On my writing site I’ve listed some of the plots that I see over and over—or would if I hadn’t placed an embargo on them.


Do you approach the topic of writing "spiritual" or "faith-focused" fiction in your classes?

Since I teach at a Christian university and I’m an outed Christian writer, this is a question we discuss often. Many of my students are interested in the ministry—or in evangelism—and so are drawn toward writing things intended to convert their readers. I push them to write honestly about their characters and their dilemmas, and let the faith arise from the story. Their values and beliefs drive them—they’ll drive the story as well.

We also talk about the vocation of writing, since I believe that writers and artists are charged with bringing the Kingdom into closer focus, just as a pastor, priest, or social worker might be. Since we’re all entrusted with talents to use for good or ill, I certainly would rather see my students writing about redemption and grace then about Uzis and orgies. But who knows? Sometimes those stories can be stories of grace and redemption too. I wouldn’t want to spend time with most of the characters in Pulp Fiction or Magnolia, but every time I see those films I’m blown away anew with the way that grace emerges like a flower out of a trash heap.


Many think writing can't be taught. That's obviously not true but are there any areas that are more difficult to fit into curriculum?

A question I’m often asked is where I get my ideas. And of course, there’s no idea factory—you just have to be observant and a little bit imaginative. I have my writers keep a journal, do exercises to try and help them generate story ideas, and still every semester I find students simply looking at me blank-faced. “I don’t have anything to write about.” It’s one of the reasons genre fiction is so appealing to young writers, I think—there’s a form and pattern that they don’t have to recognize or make up. Then later, after they’ve seen some more life—which is to say, unfortunately, more conflict—I notice lots of writers move from science fiction or fantasy or women’s to more individual and “literary” stories.


What's the most important thing in writing--talent or discipline?


I’d put my money on a disciplined writer any day. Talent is—and I mean no offense to any talented readers—a dime a dozen. When I look back over my fifteen years at Baylor, I see that the most talented writer I’ve ever taught gave up after her first rejection and one of my less obviously-talented writers persevered year after year, took an entry-level job reading screenplays, came back to Baylor to do a Masters degree with me in creative writing. And he and his writing partner now command a seven-figure paycheck on every movie they write. I could not be more proud, because he could have given up anywhere along the way.

I’d say ninety percent of success as a writer is just being too pigheaded to give up. I’m evidence of that. Twenty years elapsed between my first published short story and my first published novel. I used to imagine that I’d be discovered when I was 25, but the truth was, I hadn’t written anything good enough when I was that age. Usually things happen when they’re supposed to happen, but they only happen if you’ve kept yourself in the game.


Riff a little on the very common advice, "Write what you know?" How far does that go? When does the writer learn to rely on the imagination?

I find I’m less and less interested in “Write what you know” unless by that we mean something like “Write what you care about.” I could have gone on writing stories and then books about depressed artistic men until the end of the world, since that was the experience of most of my adult life. With short stories, it may be valuable to put up a familiar stage set for your actors to work in front of. But now that I’m writing books almost exclusively, I find that although I’m writing out of human emotions and desires I know, the surface details don’t have to be familiar. In fact, it’s more interesting if they aren’t. I knew North Carolina and New Mexico, primary settings for Free Bird, and I’d been a rock musician like the narrator, but the primary plot details were made up, and more interesting because they didn’t so closely follow my life.

In Sanctuary, the novel I just finished revising, I made the narrator an oncologist whose abusive Irish Catholic father was a dock-worker in New Orleans and whose best friend was molested by a priest. Needless to say, those are not my life details. But I found that doing the research was a challenge and a joy. I learned about oncology and new developments in cancer treatment, I spent time in the French Quarter, I did research into the Catholic abuse scandals, which were particularly virulent in Louisiana. If I’m going to spend three to five years of my life writing a novel, I want to learn some new things every time I do it.


Can you name some writing books that you've found helpful or recommend to students. (Not Bird by Bird, everybody knows that one.)

Well, besides Bird by Bird, which I do use every semester, I like Stephen King’s On Writing (which shows you the writer’s toolbox and then shows a master mechanic using those tools), Rust Hills’ Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular (terrific guidance from the former fiction editor at Esquire), Roberta Allen’s Fast Fiction (emotional plot prompts that can kickstart your creativity), and Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey (a screen consultant’s take on the archetypal hero’s journey from Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, it’s perhaps the best aid I know on plotting; I had it and handy the whole time I was writing Free Bird).

Less obviously, I’m also drawn to Thomas Merton, who took devotion and writing very seriously and wrote often about his writing and reading (see New Seeds of Contemplation and Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander), Walker Percy’s books about his writing and his faith (The Message in the Bottle and Signposts in a Strange Land) and The Correspondence of Shelby Foote and Walker Percy (for its great lifelong debate about whether great fiction could also be spiritual), and Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It and Young Men and Fire (which are as much about telling stories as the stories they tell).
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Go to Day 2 of our Conversation with Greg Garrett

Friday, June 03, 2005

Queen of the Slush Pile: Thoughts of a Publishing Intern

Well, another Friday, another blog. I apologize for interrupting the disco on Free Bird, and I hope you’ll stick with me today.

First, thanks for all the responses. You guys are great. But somehow I just don’t think Dave would appreciate hidden reptiles in his desk and involved discussions on Buffy (maybe on Bruce Springsteen though). [Ed: To set the record straight I am pro-Buffy. I never watched it a lot, but it was a smart show. I am also, as Carra mentions, pro-Springsteen. Also: Pro-kalamata olive. Pro-Richard Russo. Pro-MLB. Anti-Julia Roberts. Anti-NASCAR. Undecided on snarky interns. ;) Sincerely, Dave] But thanks for the advice….

Speaking of advice, I have had a few thoughts on that this past week. Does it ever seem like the people who least know and/or get your writing are the people who offer you the most advice on how to shape your story and mold your characters? And the ones who actually have opinions that would be useful shy away from giving them? What is with that? Do they not know the power of

…The Red Pen. AAAHHH!

Even though I have been savagely scarred in the past by the Red Pen, I have come to revere the power of it. But only when wielded by some. It is important to have an array of critquers, but they need to be a). people you trust and b). people who know what they are talking about. If they are not A and B (or at least B), then it is like throwing your baby to the wolves instead of handing him to the doctors.

All this to say, I now don’t actually mind the Red Pen. I prefer other colors (like blue or purple or green), but I accept Red now as well. So if you are a critiquer, be gentle. As Anne Lamont says in Bird by Bird, you don’t have to cut with the sword of truth; you can point with it too. And I think that can carry over into all aspects of our lives.

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The Links

How to Critique Fiction by Victory Crane: If you need tips on critiquing (or want to give others tips on critiquing), this page has a pretty detailed process explanation.

Better Fiction Forum: This site has a ton of advice and discussions about how to better your writing. If you are interested in seeing different critique forms or getting involved in a critique group, you should stop by this place.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Day 3 of Free Bird – How Many Christians Should Be in a Christian Book?

You guys always go quiet when I talk about a book you haven’t read. I understand that. Hopefully though you’re sticking with this little series, but next week I’ll be posting four, possibly even five, days of Q&A with Greg. He’s coming from a very interesting perspective and I think you’ll really appreciate what he has to say. I did.

One thing he gets into a bit is how he came to write Free Bird.

It’s fascinating to me on a number of levels (and I’m going to mildly spoil next week’s interview) because (ignoring some content issues) the book has some extremely CBA-friendly elements to it. It is, as I said on Tuesday, a redemption story. A pretty powerful one. And much of that movement toward redemption comes through the hands of some Christian characters. We talked yesterday of “episodes”—well, many of Clay Forester’s episodes include running into outspoken Christians.

What’s interesting here is that, from Greg Garrett’s perspective at the time of writing it (and his publisher Kensington’s I’m assuming) this is anomalous. Outspoken Christians (of various flavors) in an ABA novel are an oddity. It doesn’t happen a lot. It’s unique. It’s very, well, CBA-ish.

If the world mirrored a CBA novel, um, we wouldn’t be having quite so many arguments about this country going to hell-in-a-hand basket. (We’d also have a population of 60% widows, 20% handsome heathens about to be converted, and 20% spunky virgins, but that’s another issue.) See, there’s an inordinate number of Christians in Christian fiction. Just like, I guess, there’s an inordinate number of perverted serial killers in suspense fiction and cantaloupe-breasted women with size-2 waists in romance fiction. That’s going to be the nature of the beast.

BUT!

If, again, our goal is to mimic reality exactly how many Christians should there actually be in our stories?

It drives me nuts, even now, that a group of character’s in my first novel are all Christians. I had reasons for this choice, but I’m not so happy about the decision any longer. I’m afraid it was a decision made to facilitate getting “God talk” into the book.

This “God talk” is always the toughest part of Christian fiction. My life, probably more than many of you REVOLVES around God-talk (at least in part) because of working for a Christian company. And yet there’s still not as much in my life as I often find in Christian fiction. Making those conversations seem natural is incredibly difficult.

(Which is why a meditative novel like Gilead where the character is a pastor might seem so appealing. “It’s his nature and habit to talk about God. He can’t do anything but.”)

I have no idea what my point is here. I guess it’s:

Not every character (including the pleasant mailman) need be a Christian in your book. Perhaps we shouldn’t even know one way or the other about most of them.

And those that are Christians…I’m not sure what it means if they’re solely Christian to advance the plot, or the redemptive story, or a conversion? Is this the same as God using people in our lives to challenge our faith?

If you have perspectives I’d love to hear them.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Day 2 of Free Bird – Free Love on the Free Love Freeway

Very few of us are totally ecumenical when it comes to our novels. We like first-person books and single narrator third-person books and omniscient books…but once there’s more than three narrators in a book—that drives us nuts.

Or maybe you dislike epistolary novels. “Nobody sits down to start writing in a journal and ends up with a novel!” you shout into the void.

Maybe you don’t like books narrated by dead characters, i.e. The Lovely Bones. *cough*me!*cough*

Regardless, this is something that as writers we can’t control about our readers. The same way we can’t control their emotional state when they pick up our book. There are readers who simply won’t be crazy about the form or perspective or something in our novel before they even start.

I bring this up because I’m not the biggest fan of the “road trip novel.” I don’t loathe them—far from it. I just think the necessary structure of such a story forces writers to make very similar decisions in their narrative. In other words, a new road trip novel often seems like an echo of an earlier novel I’ve read—through little fault of the author.

The reason is the episodic nature of such a story. The journey, almost invariably, is some sort of escape (often east to west in our country), and along the way our protagonist encounters various people and/or events that challenge him/her until they reach their final destination. At which point they’ve discovered the solution to that which they were escaping.

This is totally legit. We are affected by people who enter our lives for only a brief time. For whatever reason, I’m just not as drawn to reading about such adventures.

I think it has to do with the idea of fate/God’s hand/author contrivance.

Think about it: a man drives a car out his driveway in Delaware on a journey across the country. Unless he’s planning to stop to see friends, all that lies ahead of him is in flux. The people and situations he runs into along the way feel much more planned and controlled than in other novels. Why for instance does he meet the cute brunette in Tulsa? Why did he stop at that one truck stop where she was waitressing? There’s just too much of the random to engage me, I suppose.

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This is implicitly, I guess, a kind of criticism of Free Bird. I don’t really mean it that way. I guess I just want us to think about some of the confines, strait-jackets, boxes that the narrative structure or point-of-view’s we choose relegate us to.

Some we may not be able to escape. Choosing a dead narrator, for instance, is going to radically alter the options you have in allowing your character to interact with other characters.

Others we may be able to turn on their head or toy with to confound expectations. Think of the absurdity for instance of a “road trip” novel in which the protagonist continually runs into people he knows along the way.

We should try never to just accept the structure inherently however. Otherwise your story may be less of an echo and rather just a rote copy.
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Go to Day 3 of our discussion of Free Bird.