Christian Fiction: Religious Publishing’s Redheaded Stepchild


Pile of open booksBeaten like a redheaded stepchild.

It means to be singled-out for abuse, since a redheaded stepchild will ultimately look different from the rest of the children in the family and is probably the one child who looks most like the absent parent.

Last week, a couple commenters wondered why I was writing fiction instead of nonfiction. Acquainted with my writing here at Cerulean Sanctum, they thought it odd that I was abandoning what they felt was a career in nonfiction (presumably through authoring books that teach on a topic) to focus on novels.

That’s a legitimate concern. I answered in the comments of that post, but have pondered that question on and off over the last week. The Lord hasn’t really burned any one issue into my soul in the last few hours, so rather writing nothing for today, I thought I’d expound on this issue of the worthiness of Christian fiction and my reasons for pursuing a career as a novelist.

My wife calls me a Renaissance Man because there’s not a field I can’t discuss to the point that I could fool most people into thinking I worked in that field. I’ve had so many disparate jobs in my life (and even more suggested to me by well-meaning advocates) that I’m most definitely a jack-of-all-trades. Couple that with reading on everything from Einstein to Frankenstein, and you have the a modern day equivalent of the 17th century’s Man of Letters.

Unfortunately, our culture has no real place for Men of Letters and jack-of-all-trades. The Renaissance is long past. Ours is the Age of Specialists. Anyone who’s recently applied for a job that asks for skills in twenty-five areas knows that fulfilling twenty-three of those areas won’t cut the mustard nowadays.

The same is true of nonfiction in the Christian world.

Read the dustjacket of your average Christian nonfiction title, noting the author bio. Every time I do so, I’m amazed that the author even has time to write considering all the degrees he’s earned, the ministries he’s founded, and the sheer number of leadership roles any one person can have. I think, Man, he’s got to have a butler or two to juggle all he does. It takes me six hours just to cut the grass!

That reality carries ramifications.

One of the unfortunate truths of publishing is that the average Joe doesn’t want to read another average Joe’s wisdom. Because I own a freelance writing business, I routinely get folks asking me if I will write their life story. Usually the requester tells me that their story is so jaw-droppingly astonishing that I’ll be seeing my name in The New York Times Book Review if I write up their life.

I tell every one of those folks the same harsh truth: Unless you’re a recognizable name, no one cares how amazing your triumph over adversity is. Joel Osteen overcomes a case of dandruff? A million copies sold from WalMart alone. You regrowing your limbs after having them bitten off by 20-ft. tall radioactive squirrels escaped from a top secret government lab? Well, maybe your mama will read it if it goes on sale at Big Lots.

Likewise, should I try to write for the nonfiction market, unless I can produce an author’s bio that makes me sound like Rick Warren, John MacArthur, Thomas Aquinas, C.S. Lewis, St. Augustine, and Max Lucado rolled up into one, no one will pay to read what I think about some issue in the Christian Faith. Free blog? Maybe. And even that’s a struggle.

Fiction, though, is a horse of a different color. I don’t have to be the pastor of the most mega-full megachurch of them all. I don’t have to have been the past director of the American Red Cross, Operation Mobilization, and Youth for Christ all at the same time. My wife doesn’t have to be the founder of six different women’s ministries now in ninety-seven countries and counting. My kids don’t have to be the valedictorian and/or first team All-American. I don’t have to have an Oscar, Tony, Emmy, Clio, Patsy, Gold Medallion, or any other award. I don’t even have to say that I once taught a night class on self-esteem at a community college.

All I have to do is write a good tale.

The irony of the whole fiction vs. nonfiction divide is that the divide itself doesn’t truly exist. In a novel, I can do as much teaching as St. Paul if the story will bear it. Through stories, I can actually expound on three or four different subjects that the buyer of a nonfiction book would never tolerate mixed together. You could never sell a nonfiction book on classical music + quantum physics + chastity, but you could write a novel that encompasses all three.

Here’s another case in point about the nature of nonficti0n (facts) vs. fiction (narrative). I’m going to toss out two teachings by Jesus. Without thinking about them too much, what are the details and points from each?

  • The Olivet Discourse
  • The Parable of the Good Samaritan

Okay, so not everyone knows Matthew 24 as the Olivet Discourse. What if I said it was Jesus’ teachings on the Last Days? Does that help with the specifics at all? No?

We remember virtually every parable, don’t we? Narrative resonates. I was talking with a librarian today at my local library, and we were discussing how easily we remember the great novels of our youth, their messages still echoing deep within us. The Old Man and the Sea. The Red Badge of Courage. Little House on the Prairie. The Cay. They stick with us because their narrative framework carries within it embedded truth. When we recall the story, we recall the greater meaning behind it.

I can’t remember all the points from all the sermons I’ve heard. (I don’t think I’m the only one, either. So fess up!) But I can recall most of the stories told within those same sermons.

My personal library is four feet to the left of me as I write. All the titles are jumping out, but as I scan each one, many of their facts are lost to my foggy memory. Narrative, on the other hand, pops right into my noggin. I can’t recall all the details from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, but I can envision almost every scene from the book next to it, C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce.

I’m nobody in the grand schemes of the publishing world. No marquee flashes my name in neon. You can’t get my teaching tapes from CBD. But what I can do is tell a tale well. And as any publisher or agent will tell you, that’s exactly what their dying for in the fiction market, embedded truths and all.

Christian fiction may seem like the redheaded stepchild to some folks, but right now, there’s no better way to bring the truth of Christ into a world that gets bombarded by facts each day. “Tell me a story,” is a phrase that hints at the captivating power of narrative. Whether we’re seven or seventy, when we’re engrossed in a story, our souls are open to the Lord.

Tags: Fiction, Nonfiction, Facts, Narrative, Story, Teaching, Church, Faith, Christianity, Jesus, God

22 thoughts on “Christian Fiction: Religious Publishing’s Redheaded Stepchild

  1. Caleb W

    “Thou shalt nots are easily forgotten, but once upon a times are remembered forever”, as one writer once said. I also hope to be a writer, but I’m still young and inexperienced both in life and in writing, so I’m trying to learn about life and develop my writing skills, and hope to be able to write something good in the not-too-distant future. I hope your efforts at writing fiction and getting it published go well.

  2. Helen

    I am always reading and watching to get the message of a story, that resonates with me. Fiction can say it the way nono-fiction can’t.

    In your opinion, where does poetry stand in the writing market, as far as a message is concerned?

  3. Jennifer

    Well, I have not worked in a plethora of fields like you have, but I relate to �reading on everything from Einstein to Frankenstein�. I have struggled been working on a book for a few years now, but as you well know, life has a way of interferring. My degree is in journalism, and I wrote for local papers for a few years before having a child. Christian fiction is a hot field, but so much harder to write, so my hat is off to you. You are a talented non-fiction writer, so I have no doubt your novel will also be successful.

  4. The Christian Woman

    For Christmas one year I looked around the bookstores for Christian fiction for some of my unsaved relatives and friends. I knew if I bought them Christian non-fiction it would never see the light of day, but fiction they would read.

    My hope was that exposure to a little bit of God embedded in a tale might tweak their interest and hopefully lead to some conversation. That said, I found it difficult to uncover good Christian fiction, especially something that would appeal to non-believers.

    I agree with your reasoning and just wanted to add what I said above – your scope may be bigger than some may think.

  5. darla

    I did read all the required reading for undergrad and graduate studies, but much of it is floating around in my brain, not filed where it is easily retrievable. However, some fiction is imbedded to the extent it is almost like a memory of a real event in my own life.

    Speaking of required reading…. If I hear The Purpose Driven Life recommended for reading one more time, I will scream. I know it has good stuff in it, but for about a year I couldn’t get away from the thing. Maybe it is my stubborn, rebellious streak, but I never did finish reading that book. Every church, every Sunday School class, every small group, every sermon contained excepts. Arrgh! Whatever happened to the Bible!?

    Now that I have THAT off my chest….

    I have been a closet reader of historical (mostly Christian) fiction for many years. Only my closest female friends and relatives (and, well, my librarian) realize the extent of my addiction. When I have a precious few minutes free, I want to escape into a great story. Learning a bit of historical facts along the way is a fringe benefit. My husband does not understand this addiction, but he tolerates it. I will pick up his books to see what they are about, but her rarely peeks at mine. Too bad. He might discover that reading is more than just filling our heads with facts, it is downright enjoyable.

    I wondered why you chose to go that route and I now have my answer. But I am surprised that your readers question your interest in fiction. Everybody loves a good story. Jesus knew it and that is why he taught through parables.

    Let us know when to expect to see your latest work in the bookstores.

  6. When I was writing full-time, people used to come to me fairly regularly with book ideas. It was always the same: I’ll give you the idea, you do the writing, and we’ll split the money 50-50. I finally found a good answer: let them keep all the profits, but I’ll charge $30/hr. up-front to write the book. No takers so far.

    Being a “Renassance man” is indeed one of the best qualifications for being a novelist. All the best for you, Dan.

  7. rev-ed

    I tell every one of those folks the same harsh truth: Unless you’re a recognizable name, no one cares how amazing your triumph over adversity is.

    Unless you can get Oprah to recommend it… 😉

  8. Rick Creech


    I have been reading your blog longer than any other blog out there. I was disappointed about your novel not working out, because I do not read much fiction but I was going to get your book. I was actually looking forward to seeing how you do fiction. This is my question, have you ever thought about doing a mini series of fiction or something like that with a blog??? Until you get one published, maybe that would be a way of generating interest with your fiction??? I don’t know, you have probably already thought about this, but I for one would be interested in reading something like that. Just thought I’d throw that at you. I know that you are busy, but I would like to know your thoughts on these things.

  9. Tried to post this earlier today, but Blogger wasn’t expiring my visual “word identification” letters for some odd reason. They always came up the same and never matched back to Blogger as a result. Now it works!


    If fiction is the redheaded stepchild, then poetry is the crazy aunt locked away in the attic. “Shh! Don’t even think about her and maybe she’ll leave us alone!”

    Here’s how the market approaches novels:

    “We’ll give you a $7,000 advance, and negotiate the royalties.”

    And now, poetry:

    “If you give us $100, we’ll publish your poetry—and no rhyming stuff, either!”

    There’s no money in poetry at all. For all intents and purposes, poetry is totally dead in this country.

    I’m not exempt from that lack of interest. I was just trying to remember who the Poet Laureate of the United States is right now and no name came to mind.

    I wrote poetry for a while, but gave up on it. I try to keep some of the consonance, assonance, and alliteration of poetry in my fiction, so it wasn’t a total loss.

    I entered a Christian-themed rhyming poem in Writers Digest’s annual writing contest. It placed 77th out of 2,800+ poetry entries, so it had a respectable showing. It’s called “Winter” and has a basic idea of waiting for the Lord to return, comparing that waiting to being frozen in winter. Yes, it rhymes, but has a very unusual rhyming pattern, which I think is one of the reasons the judges found it appealing.

    I’d love for more people to read my poetry, but I’d really prefer not to give it away for free. That’s the constant struggle for people who make their living writing.

  10. Travis,

    What I read in fiction is rather limited. The fiction I enjoy is:

    * Humor (Think along the lines of Wodehouse, Douglas Adams, and Jasper Fforde. In other words, highly ironic and wry British type stuff.)
    * Science fiction (with a little fantasy)
    * Magic realism
    * Anything speculative, even verging into types of horror (which I consider even harder to write than humor.)

    Now that I’ve delineated what I read, you’ll notice that all those genres are virtually non-existent in Christian fiction. I would like to rectify that. However, at the American Christian Fiction Writer’s conference that I went to about six months ago, the very genres I listed above were the ones that editors said they weren’t buying.

    What does that tell you?

    That’s why there isn’t any fiction in my sidebar. This is not to say that there’s not great Christian fiction out there. There are some highly talented Christian writers who read this blog! But virtually no one is writing the kind of stuff I typically read.

    Now my wife reads a ton of fantasy and sometimes science fiction, and she read a sf series by Kathy Tyers that she loved. However, my understanding is that Tyers isn’t really writing anymore. That’s a shame. Unfortunately, I did not have an opportunity to read that series.

    My novel Fade into Blue (don’t get attached to that title, since publishers love to tweak titles) is a blend of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland books and C.S. Lewis’s Space Trilogy, so you can tell where I’m going with it. I also wrote a very funny satirical retro sf novel with teenage protagonists, and though my writers group loved it, they all said the same thing: you don’t have a market. The novel I’m finishing up should rectify that since I’m aiming it squarely at women sf and fantasy readers who also like romance. Guys should like it, too, but Christian women buy 85% of the fiction out there, so you have to hit that demographic or you’re hurtin’ for certain.

  11. Milton,

    Honestly, to ghostwrite a book in the secular realms ghostwriters charge between $25,000 and $60,000 dollars, sometimes far more to ghostwrite for a big name celebrity. I tell people I’ll do it for between $17,500 and $27,500. Plus, I require $5000 upfront and another $5000 after the first hundred pages.

    That shocks a lot of folks back to reality.

    What people don’t get is that it’s at least six months work minimum. We all have to live! Sometimes I think people believe that writers like to work for free because they enjoy writing.

    Some of these freelance sites where people bid projects drive me crazy. I saw someone bid $99 on a two hundred page tech manual. I don’t know what rich old lady bid that job, but if that’s where the biz is going….

  12. Rick,

    Thanks for hanging in there on Cerulean Sanctum!

    I’m in a tight spot, Rick, in that I can’t give away work. If I have an idea good enough to write, then if I put out there on the Web it has absolutely no earning potential because of the way publishers and magazine editors view work published on the Web. Yes, there are occasionally some exceptions, but I can’t pay bills with exceptions—if you catch my drift.

    Sometimes novelists offer tidbits. A few authors have sold novels online by offering a few free chapters, then asking for people to pay for the rest. I may explore that with a sf novelette I wrote that is having a hard time finding a home because of its length. I’ve had several respected sf editors read it and they all agree it’s well-written, but it resonates with women far more than with men, which makes it a tough sell in the sf periodical market.

  13. Ronni

    Dan, I’m actually working on a book of Christian Poetry and am working on getting it picked up by one of two publishing houses (both Christian, and both I have connections with)… mostly prophetic poetry…

    Also, when you get that manuscript done, let me know… I used to work at one of the largest Christian publishing houses that publishes about 80% Christian Fiction… 😀

    Your writing is exceptional and deserves to be out there.

  14. Maybe this is a question for another forum but . . .

    What is the difference in earning potential for fiction verse non-fiction writers? I am not talking about how the mega ministry pastor overcame wealth to become super wealthy, but instead the differnce between the well read (but not NYT Bestseller) nonfiction verse fiction .

    Can you earn a living writing Christian novels? Is there room for more than 25-50 Christian novelists?

  15. darla

    Yep, I read Tracie Peterson. Now I am really excited about your book because I am a HUGE fan of CS Lewis’ Space Trilogy.

  16. Carl,

    I would say that there’s really no difference. Books sold are books sold.

    The amount of research may even be the same, and research is time consuming (time=$$$). I know that for my novel I’ve spent many hours talking with folks in the classical music field (my heroine is a cellist with a major orchestra). I’ve also done a ton of Web research in order to get my facts straight. Plus, I’ve read several science books to get the mechanism behind my idea to jive with current theories. Readers fact check everything anymore and credibility dictates careful research in fiction as much as in non. (For instance, I consulted a sunrise/sunset chart to make sure that depictions in my novel are accurate for the time period covered. Simple, but people will catch you on it. I have a scene that takes place early in the morning and the rising sun streams into the room as the characters are talking. I had to make certain that at 6:20 AM on the date in question that this was possible.)

  17. Carl,

    One last note.

    It used to be that publishers expected 20,000 copies sold for a book to be considered marginally successful. I’m now hearing that 5,000 is acceptable. That’s how diluted the market has become. Obviously, that means less money for the writer.

    That said, Christian fiction had an 8% growth last year versus nothing or a loss for most other kinds of books, so it’s very hot right now.

  18. darla

    Speaking of fact checking….

    Someone at our public libary must read the same genre of books as I. Whenever I see something questionable in some “historical” fiction I read, I often notice that a previous reader also noted it in the margin. I really hate it when I question the common sense of the writer as I am reading his work. It takes the fun out of the experience.

    It’s bad enough to have your work marked up by professionals offering constructive criticism. You don’t want to have your work marked up like THAT, Dan! (c;

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