“A prophet gone wrong is almost always more interesting than your grandmother…”
- Flannery O’Connor
Been on the perimeter of yet another round of Believers Brick-Tag, i.e. the “Spec-fiction is a stumbling block/supernatural and,or worldly elements are a grievous offense” discussion, and I feel the need to stake out what seems incredibly obvious yet damnably elusive.
First off, let’s reiterate the distinction between theology and speculative fiction. One is the systematic study of God and religious belief, the other is – by definition – made up stories.
Now I know atheists would say this is true of the Bible itself, but that’s a different discussion. To repeat my mantra: a novel is not a sermon. It’s one of those ‘apples and orangutans’ things, people. Similar raw material (words and ideas) but different modes, different purposes, different content.
You don’t get into an elevator for the music. You shouldn’t look for theology in a dystopian YA novel or an urban fantasy series. I know they make truth-claims and worldview statements either overtly or obliquely. EVERYTHING DOES. You must have heard the phrase ‘spit out the bones’. It’s time to exercise discernment – the same level one employs when selecting kitchen utensils to say, scramble eggs. “Put away the corkscrew and tenderizing mallet.”
If you want Christian theology, read the Bible, church history, and apologetics. Don’t get it from a Wachowski movie or a K-pop hit or a Marvel comic book or a “Left Behind” novel. That’s akin to making life-choices based on fortune cookies. Which would be bad. That some people do in fact cobble belief systems from Star Trek and Pink Floyd, then Quick-Pick their Happy Panda Lucky Numbers constitutes a severe failure in their judgment. (I suspect LSD and alcohol is a factor in such cases)
Second, let’s remember the distinctions between the artist, their art, and their audience. Souls are saved, art is not. Art is a product of a remarkable, mysterious synergy, but it is a construct nonetheless. Painting a night sky means you’ll have to break out a tube of black paint. It doesn’t mean you’re a ‘dark’ individual. Just don’t expect to sell it to folks who are partial to sunrises.
While the call to genuine character, sound thinking, and the fundamentals of Christian doctrine apply to every believer, the vocation of an artist – in this case, writer – is not that of the preacher or theologian. One employs drama, metaphor, allegory, and myth, while the other expounds on biblical spiritual truth and (hopefully) delivers an inspired rhema for a particular time, place, and congregation.
Both engage with the transcendent. Each borrows from the others toolbox. I’m not elevating one over the other- I’m simply noting they approach it from vastly different angles. See the C.S Lewis quote on Reason and Imagination. (Incidentally, doctrine is how we engage with the transcendent – not beat it into submission; directions to the doctor are not the doctor. Dreams about the doctor aren’t either.)
I happen to be a Christian who writes spec-fiction for a non-Christian audience. Part of my obligation before God is to recognize the conventions of the genre and the expectations of my readers. I have to be faithful to those dynamics too, then do the work to the best of my ability. And to echo Dorothy Sayers, work must be good work before it can be God’s work because pious trash is still trash.
Last, let’s distinguish between Realistic and Gratuitous, between being Sensitive and Pandering.
Let’s face it: “Christian gritty” is pretty tame. Many Christian fiction writers try to genuinely honor the conventions of their genres as well as strive for credibility, consistency, and realism, but we don’t come close to reality. Not really.
Not that our gold standard is Triple X Snuff Porn with a dash of Corporate Avarice and Ethnic Cleansing, but it’s worth remembering ‘worldly’ content is taken from the real world – a real world that is definitely not PG-13, that God still loves, hasn’t abandoned, and meets precisely at its shameful, broken, ugly point of need. That’s what the Cross was and Salvation is.
When writing fiction, I’m certainly not for inserting cruel, coarse, or lascivious content for shock or titillation. But realistic themes where and when they’re organic to the characters and story line? Absolutely. It’s mandatory, in fact. Anything less cheapens the work, and strikes me as inherently duplicitous and dishonoring to God.
Now that kind of content may well make some readers uncomfortable. Shock them even, to the point where the alarmist ‘stumbling block’ phrase gets volleyed about loudly and frequently.
Look, I’m all for being sensitive to someone’s weakness or struggles. I’ll refrain if I know someone has a problem. That’s basic human compassion and consideration. But I’m all done pandering to the ‘professional weaker brother’, those tedious brethren who make a habit, a career, a ministry of taking offense, then running around telling everyone. It’s deliberate immaturity, demanding everyone bend down because they refuse to grow up. We’re walking on eggshells while they stomp all over personal convictions, choices, and liberty. I’m going to make a lot of mistakes, but I’m not going to second guess myself into paralysis, mediocrity, and anemia.
Over thirty years as a believer, a majority of them in full or part time ministry of some kind, it’s my experience too many in the church prefer tidy affirmations to hard-edged hope. Christians in any walk of life or vocation have to reject the notion that the call to be ‘in the world but not of it’ translates into a license to be ignorant or insular. The root meaning of “holiness” is not sterile separation but the notion of being set apart for a particular use. We cannot hide from ugly realities or contradictory philosophies (or worse, ridicule, reduce and sanitize them) then think we can be effective in addressing them with any meaningful offer of God’s redemption.
I’ll end with this thought from Harry Dreyfuss, actor Richard Dreyfuss’ son. (Good find, K.C.)
“If you can’t stand to listen to an idea, it does not prove that you oppose it. Refusing to show interest in a different perspective should not serve as a badge of pride in your own ideas. It actually serves the exact opposite function. It proves that you don’t even understand your own opinion. If you can’t understand the argument you disagree with, then you don’t have the right to disagree with it with any authority, nor do you really have a grasp on what your own idea means in its context.” – Harry Dreyfuss
Have a good day, and in the words of Chuck Wendig, “Go forth and art hard.”
I’ll just leave this right here.
Something to help faith-based spec-fiction writers duck those spitballs from Baptisney-land:
“For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”
― C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
or “Why SyFy’s ‘THE EXPANSE’ show is better than the books”
‘Bread and circuses’ was the policy employed by jaded Imperial Roman politicians to control and appease the great unwashed pleb masses. Now this isn’t a political post (although I certainly could run down that rabbit trail barking like a pack of rabid hounds) This being a writing blog, I’m going take a moment to ramble on about the storyteller’s dilemma of Substance versus Spectacle.
THE PLOT DOESN’T THICKEN THE FORCE AWAKENS
After Christmas, I spent one of my rare annual visits to the Mall Multi-Plex on SW:TFA. My wife and I, along with several friends plunked down our $8.50 each, sunk into our seats and escaped for 2+ hours while munching on popcorn and smuggled-in Twizzlers. When the final credits rolled, my first reaction was relief: JJ didn’t botch it. He and his team made an epic Big Screen event and a solid homage to my childhood geek icon. Bravo.
Then why was there this nagging disappointment? For all the new characters, the old familiars, the cool vistas, the choreographed dogfights, the Death Planet explosion, I was ultimately underwhelmed. My one-sentence summation hit me on the drive home: “Another layer of frosting on a 39 year-old cake.”
OK, so it’s not 1977 and I am a bit older than 13. What did I really expect? It’s “Star Wars” not “War and Peace”. Then I ran across this excellent LA TIMES article which brought it into focus: the old issue of Story versus Spectacle. Yes, SW:TFA was pretty, and shiny and frenetic, but plot-wise? A thin layer of Stupendously Predictable.
STORY OR SPECTACLE
That’s the storyteller’s dilemma, isn’t it? Story or Spectacle. My question is “Why do we have to choose?” Now maybe audiences have been complaining about this for centuries. “That Euripides is so shallow. All pageant and chorus. No depth at all – not like Aeschylus.” It just feels like the swap, the ‘bait-and-switch’, is far too common these days. Well, sizzle ain’t steak, no matter the era.
As an unrepentant geek, I’m referencing sci fi and fantasy here, but I think this friction applies across the board.
Take a moment and compare Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy with The Lord of the Rings. See? That’s my point. Not that The Hobbit wasn’t a great book with magical characters in the same incredible world. It just wasn’t THREE MOVIES worth of story. Which is why we ended up with Hunky Dwarves, an e-Harmony Dwarf/Elf match, an Albino Orc baddie, non-stop Disney-ride action sequences, and Sand Worms imported from Arrakis. Instead of one book per movie, we got one novella spread over three movies. So, Sir PJ had to spackle something in all those gaps. He had seven + cinema hours to fill.
What about Avatar? – where James Cameron grabbed every sci fi trope that couldn’t run fast enough and blended them into a sweet frothy frappe of a plot he could hang $600 million worth of CGI on. Contrast it with District 9. (Which stands as one of my all-time favorite SF films) Positively Everything about D9 is more interesting than Avatar, from the characters to the camera work. It has an actual story arc and character development.
No, Mr. Blomkamp didn’t hit the same heights with Elysium or Chappie, but it’s obvious he’s trying. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if I had to choose, I’d rather be known for D9 than Avatar, a.k.a. the most forgettable mega-blockbuster in history. (Four out of five Otaku Experts agree it left virtually NO cultural footprint) And don’t even get me started on Pacific Rim or the recent Godzilla letdown.
SyFy’s latest attempt to recapture the BGS phenomena comes from two of George RR Martin’s staff writers who are cranking out a series of SF novels each heavy enough to stun a horse. Kudos to them – they’re making a good living.
I heeded the hype and tried, but gave up when neo-Chandler detective met the Space Zombies. The whole affair hit me as McDonalds space opera: quick, assembly-line, SF calories. Filling in a way, made for rapid consumption from obviously reconstituted ingredients, but definitely not taking digestion in mind.
Thing is though, to fill out all those pages Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck needed to think in longer than 42 minute increments, conjure up better than cardboard character types, twine more than two plot threads for their solar system-sized setting, then add a dash of political/social machinations – which is why the show works as good SF television. There is more STORY there than the bog-standard SyFy serial. (Sharknado 4, anyone?) I won’t buy another Expanse book, but I’ll be spending one lunch break per week to catch up on the latest episode.
A QUESTION OF MEDIUM?
“Don’t be daft, Paddy me boy. TV ain’t books.” Aye, I get that. They work different ways on different levels. Fine. But aren’t both vehicles for STORY? And isn’t STORY what we crave? Sure, we oooh and aaah at sweeping vistas, alien landscapes, and epic battles, but we want rich characters, believable story arcs, genuine character development, credible conflict, setback and climax. We want legitimate struggles rather than contrived ones. Faulkner’s ‘heart in conflict with itself’. Give us heart-breaking defeats and breath-taking triumphs – the bones and body, not the make-up. I think that’s why even in shallow fare like Star Wars, Darth Vader is more compelling than Luke Skywalker, and why Smeagol/Gollum is one of the most memorable characters in all Middle Earth.
NAMING THE WIND OR PASSING THE WIND?
I’ve heard that Pat Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles was optioned for film. (and video games and graphic novels, and possible TV spin-offs, and clothes, and…) The spec-fiction genre fan in me is very excited. Good on ya, Mr. Rothfuss. Excellent choice, Hollywood.I hope they do them justice.
I’m afraid though – terribly afraid, given recent events- that Mr. Rothfuss’ marvelous books with get reduced to green screen fantasy flatulence that happens to have a rocking medieval boy-toy musician, hashtag ‘Kvothe’. Which would bum me right the hell out. Like near-suicidal. It would be like watching a cow get turned into bouillon cubes. Or a Eucalyptus tree into bubble gum. (For the love of all that’s holy, Pat. Don’t let ’em do it!)
FIVE FLAMING TORCHES ON THE WRITER’S ROLLA-BOLLA OF DEATH
Juggling – that’s the challenge. At least, that’s what I think good story-telling is: a deliberate whirl of characters, plot, prose, entertainment and substance. Not that I have an MFA in Creative Writing or that I’ve hit the 10,000 hour/Million Word “Expert” mark. Honestly, I’m figuring this out as I go – sort of an ‘Earn as I Learn’ thing. Working on my next novel, I’m painfully reminded any genuine mastery is going to take far more discipline than inspiration.
However, those are the five elements that coalesce in the stories that move me. Books with that mysterious alloy survive the annual cull year after year and they are the ones I buy multiple copies of to give away to friends and family.Those are the kind of stories I want to write.
No, I haven’t mastered this yet. Not even close. But I’m going to keep at it because in terms of my writing, at the end of my life, those are the kind of stories I want to be remembered for. I don’t think for a second it’ll be easy, but I do believe in my marrow it’s on the shortlist of things that are truly worth it.
Have a good day. Thanks for reading.
First in a series of Guest Posts for 2016. First up, the founder of the Crossover Alliance, a small press specializing in gritty Christian fiction. I asked him to address the viability of faith-based fiction and its ability to impact secular, non/other-believing readers. Here are his thoughts.
It was only a few years ago that I decided to write a short story for NaNoWriMo entitled Black Earth. It was supposed to take a look at the universe of my Expired Reality series long before humans colonized another planet in the universe, back when the Earth was busy being destroyed by a vile alien force. Little did I know at the time that I was penning the basis for a four-book series that would determine the course of my writing – and even my career.
When I wrote the first book of the series, I realized the thing that made it unique was that it was science fiction, it was Christian fiction, and it was filled with real-world content. The first chapter contains a rape scene, and from there the book dives into areas that still are not acceptable in the fiction that the main Christian publishing houses put out. It was at that point that a new genre was born: edgy Christian speculative fiction. The birth of the genre eventually turned into the birth of the publishing company that I currently run: The Crossover Alliance. We specialize in this special type of fiction.
But publishing – even writing – this type of fiction is not without its hurdles. Besides having to overcome the stigma attached to Christian fiction, there are many who believe edgy Christian fiction is simply Christian fiction rife with F-bombs, sexual scenes, and gratuitous violence – essentially a PG-13 or Rated R Christian movie.
I would argue against that point. As much as I am a writer, I am also a reader. And I’ve read un-compelling fiction on both sides of the fence – Christian and non. I’ve read secular fiction that tried to stay sanitized and ‘safe’, and ended up being drab and unconvincing. I’ve read Christian fiction that tried to mask itself as fantasy, and ‘trick’ readers in the end by plugging Jesus Christ and salvation at the end of a very boring, very clique story.
When I wrote the first book in my Black Earth series, the rape scene found in my first chapter came naturally. My character, Cynthia Ruin, is considered the school whore because she bases her status on who she sleeps with. It isn’t until she is raped the night of her high school graduation that she begins questioning her actions. Her rape needed to happen, and the way I described it – from her point of view, drugged – couldn’t have had the same impact if I had just said that she was carried around a corner and then ended the chapter.
There’s a strange habit that Christian writers have adapted over the years where they believe their fiction has to be clean, pressed, and folded before it can be presented to the rest of the world. Or are they actually just trying to present it to other Christians? Maybe that’s the problem. Who are we writing for? Does that question really even matter? If we’re writing to Christians or non-Christians, don’t we all struggle with the same things? The only difference is that Christians have accepted salvation – well, supposed to have accepted salvation. So if it doesn’t matter to whom we are writing, does it matter why we are writing? If we’re trying to write to a dark world to show them the light of Jesus, wouldn’t it make sense to set the light of Jesus against a dark world within our stories?
This isn’t to say there isn’t an audience for straight up, Rated-G Christian fiction. But I don’t believe that type of Christian fiction is necessarily aimed at trying to show the light of Jesus to a dark world. I think those stories are meant to be sanitized fiction for a Christian-reading audience because the Christian-reading audience doesn’t want to read secular content. The problem with that is that we’re not reaching a non-Christian world. But that’s why the ‘why’ of what we write is important to figure out.
I think any good writer who involves themselves in this unique genre isn’t trying to be edgy just to be edgy. We’re trying to write authentic fiction that shows the world – the people in this world and the sins in this world – for what they truly are and how the light can both reveal the darkness and in the end chase it away. What is edgy anyway? Is it some foul language, some lewd scenes, some blood splatters? I think it’s simply content that pushes the real world into our writing, filling it with real issues: slavery, depression, mayhem, chaos, anger, promiscuity, lust. Good versus evil. Gray versus grey. There’s an undercurrent of tension that tugs at the reader’s heart and mind, that nudges and sometimes pushes them out of their comfort zone. It forces them to ask the hard question: Would you sacrifice ten for ten thousand? It forces the reader to face their own demons, the demons that live with them day to day. And then once the reader is brought to a place where they can no longer deny the darkness, the evil, then they are shown the light of the world, the salvation that is made available to everyone.
How do we know what is good unless we have seen or experienced what is evil? I think that’s what it boils down to. We shine the spotlight on the dark deeds to expose them for what they are. And that, my friends, is a scary way to write. It’s a scary way to read. But it’s the realest Christian fiction you will ever experience in your life.
Be sure to check out the latest Crossover Alliance Short Story Anthology. It’s out and available at Amazon. Check it out here.
Let the Stable Still Astonish
Straw-dirt floor, dull eyes,
Dusty flanks of donkeys, oxen;
Crumbling, crooked walls;
No bed to carry that pain,
And then, the child–
Rag-wrapped, laid to cry
In a trough.
Who would have chosen this?
Who would have said,
“Yes, let the God of Heaven and Earth
Be born in this place”?
Who but the same God
Who stands in the darker, fouler rooms
Of our hearts
“Yes, let the God of Heaven and Earth
Be born in this place.”
The winner of The Barrow Lover Celtic Stained Glass Giveaway sent me this picture. Apparently it was a perfect fit for one of their bathroom windows. Bit of Irish luck, that is.
That in mind, here are some shots of recent projects. There’s a large door panel that integrated salvage from a smashed antique piece in the new one. A door panel with roses. A Cape Cod waterview. Two simple Victorian pieces for a guest bath and a Mission-style piece for a front foyer.
Now… Back to writing about demonic possession, jihadists, Sci Fi Spec Ops teams, and crazed djinns in a shattered post-apocalyptic fantasy world.
Have a good weekend. Hope all your shopping is done.
Beginning in 2016, I would like to feature a monthly Guest Post here on HSSJ by different indie authors and articulate readers. Topic will be fiction and or writing-related, which is rather broad, but it will give some of the fine internet friends I have an opportunity to discuss their work, their process, their thoughts on the industry. I’ve made a initial list and will contact these folks soon, but if you’d like to participate, drop a comment here or on FB.
A couple points I need to remind myself of when things are flying everywhere and I bog down trying to cram too much in too little space/ time.
- I have three modes to my writing process: Strip Mining, Assembly, and Polishing. It’s all “Writing”, but they are very different from each other and require different parts of my brain.
- I can’t do two simultaneously. Stop trying.
- Accept what mode I’m in. Embrace it even. At this point, the only deadlines I have are the ones I set. They can be extended.
- Remember that adage about the right word versus almost the right word? Very important, that. Word Count can be a trap. Go for time spent instead. Why? Because WC varies by mode. Strip Mining = lots. Assembly = less. Polish = even less.
- That said, Busy-ness is NOT Productivity. It all comes down to finished pages.
- It’s OK to work on more than one project at a time. The background process still run. Focusing on something else might just let them work easier.
- Finish the piece to the best of my ability, kick it out the door, then move on. The Learning Curve is just that – and the only way to learn is to do the work.
- It’s not what I can’t do but what I can do that counts. Life is a gift not a chore. Adjust attitude accordingly.
Some people have greatness thrust upon them. Few have excellence thrust upon them…. They achieve it. They do not achieve it unwittingly by doing what comes naturally and they don’t stumble into it in the course of amusing themselves. All excellence involves discipline and tenacity of purpose.
We pay a heavy price for our fear of failure. It is a powerful obstacle to growth. It assures the progressive narrowing of the personality and prevents exploration and experimentation. There is no learning without some difficulty and fumbling. If you want to keep on learning, you must keep on risking failure all your life.
John William Gardner
November’s new word list from Dictionary.com. Not just for your urban patois slingers, but new workaday terms. Language is fluid.
(and I’m very pleased ‘facepalm’ made the list.)