I have about a half dozen post ideas I’d love to toss out, but all approach epic length and I’m simply not in a “write an epic” mood today. I bet you never thought this blog was based on moods, did you?
I haven’t written on books in a long while, so I thought I’d toss out a few thoughts on that subject, seeing that I pretend to be a novelist and all.
Lies, Damned Lies, and Publishing
I hope Benjamin Disraeli can find it in his heart to forgive the mangling I just gave his famous quote, but it fits what follows.
One of the most hackneyed pieces of advice thrown out to aspiring book writers is to forget the audience/demographic and just write your book. Nearly every seasoned writer/editor out there, when pressed for some tidbit to dispense to the yearning writing masses, will pull out this one.
Having worked in marketing at Apple—and being married to a marketing expert—I’ve always found this advice to be nonsensical. Clearly, certain subjects and characters appeal to certain market segments, so how can a novelist write without at least one finger on the pulse of the market?
But no, I’m told I’m a nut for questioning that old piece of advice.
Or am I?
Lauren Winner, writing for Publisher’s Weekly, notes an uptick in Christian Fiction featuring female pastors:
Is the Christian market ready for fictional clerical heroines?
Good question, said Andrea Christian, who acquired The Clear Light of Day by Penelope Wilcock (David C. Cook, 2007). Wilcock’s protagonist is a female minister. “I’m sure we’ll get some backlash,” said Christian. “But the writing is so strong that we took the risk.”
WaterBrook Press has published two novels featuring a female minister, RITA award-winning Heavens to Betsy (2005) and Earth to Betsy (2006), both by Beth Patillo. Patillo’s charming novels have the elements of sassy chick lit, but they’ve had to overcome a few sales hurdles. Some Christian chains, like Lifeway, balked. Ultimately, Lifeway’s top fiction-selling stores stocked the novels, but returns were heavy. That was one reason WaterBrook passed on Wilcock’s novel.
The article goes on to paint a decidedly mixed message on the success of this trend, only to end with the following:
Will the evangelical market see more fictional women clergy? Wilcock is working on two more Esme Browne novels, but Christian has not yet seen the proposals.
As for WaterBrook, they’re completely behind Beth Patillo. But her new novel—The Sweetgum Knit Lit Society, coming out in 2008—doesn’t feature any women clergy. Its characters have somewhat less controversial jobs: one’s a librarian.
Waterbrook says they’re completely behind Patillo, but after heavy returns (and, as would follow, disappointing sales) of her last two novels, her latest one doesn’t have any content that would rile the demographic.
So yes, you can write the novel you want to write, but if the publisher’s oracle says, “The reading masses are miffed,” you may watch your contract go up in a sulfurous ball of fire.
Translation? Better write for the demographic.
So much for that old advice, huh?
And Now for the Bad News…
I noted a few days ago that I was reading Dan Allender’s Leading with a Limp. Given that books on leadership flood the secular market (and I wouldn’t give two hoots for the whole lot of them), I was glad to read a book on leadership that said that the best way to lead was to serve, be vulnerable, communicate from the heart, admit your mistakes, and cultivate an environment for others to express those ideals.
Throughout the book (which reads like a 70’s-era John Powell tome if John Powell had written a book on leadership), Allender tells stories of people who followed his leadership ideals and triumphed. Seeing that all these tales end happily bothers me. It’s not real life.
While Allender acknowledges the risk of leading in the manner depicted, where’s the chapter on what to do when that method of leading doesn’t work? In fact, where’s that chapter in most advice books? I know authors think their ideas never fail, but you and I know they do.
One of the things that bothered me about my education was when a prof tossed out a way to do X in a church, but at no point did he explain what to do when X didn’t work. Let’s face it, plenty of good ideas on how to run a church don’t wind up working for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the ideas. In class, I would imagine a scenario involving the wealthy church matron who funded a good percentage of the church budget. What do you do when you’ve got a transformational idea that will free your church, yet the old matron will have none of it, threatening to yank her cash if the idea gets enacted?
Folks, that’s real world and it happens all the time. Why are we so afraid to address those kinds of ideas? I’d love for authors of advice/teaching books to show us the dark side, what happens when the book’s central idea fails (or, for varying reasons, can’t be put into play at all), and what to do about it. That’s a book worth buying! Honestly, if every pastor in the country followed Allender’s ideals to the T in the next week, the week after would see half the churches in the country with a “Pastor wanted” sign out front. How does one make his book real if he provides no wisdom on what to do when the basic tenets of his book backfire?
Speaking of Books That Might Backfire…
A couple readers from my target demographic have in their hands a copy of my novel. Maybe I should include a chapter in there on what to do when it all goes wrong. Come to think of it, just about everything goes wrong in my novel—that is, until everything goes right.
So yes, I suspect I’m a hypocrite. But hey, it’s fiction, right? Slightly different rules in fiction.
At least that’s what I’ll plead in court.
One topic in Christian novelist circles that perpetually rises like some literary zombie is the use (or non-use) of vulgar words. As straightlaced as I am, I go against the flow and say that sometimes the material calls for profanity and all efforts to expunge it only creates surreal attempts to bypass what’s obviously being said and sometimes must be said.
I read a secular book several years ago called Tell No One by Harlan Coben. I enjoyed considerably the mystery at its heart , but I didn’t read any of Coben’s other books. While in the library a few months ago, I saw another Coben book, a reprint of one of his earlier series, and picked it up on a whim. Coben received a number of writing awards for the mystery series featuring his sports agent, Myron Bolitar; the book I checked out was the first Bolitar novel.
And it was loaded with obscene language (just like pro sports is). I also picked up the last book in the Bolitar series and was surprised to see that Coben had excised all the vulgarities. Curious, I read a couple more of Coben’s other non-Bolitar books and saw a progressive dwindling of profanities, ending with none at all. The basic core of Coben’s books hadn’t changed—the same brood of amoral villains prowls the pages of the more recent books—but now Coben writes his scenes and characters free of vulgarities. How he pulled that off was so seamless that you never realized the four-letter carnival failed to roll into town.
On the other hand, most of the Christian fiction I’ve read stumbles awkwardly when it comes to dancing around bad words. Ted Dekker’s bad guy’s sanitized remarks in Thr3e bordered on cringe inducing. Worse, they undermined the entire premise of that story of Good and Evil because Evil swore like Eddie Haskell of Leave It to Beaver fame.
Maybe we should all read Coben for pointers. Sometimes even secular fiction does purity better than Christian fiction does.
And that’s it for books. Have a great weekend!
8 thoughts on “Book Thoughts”
I’m sure, when the manipulation of the demographic is completed, that fictional female clerical heroes will be happily accepted…So perhaps we should add demographics to an application of Disraeli’s saying, in addition to Mark Twain’s applications of justice and force.
What would be the point of writing a self-help book if you admit that your advise might not work? Oracles are supposed to be inerrant! One of the things I like about the bible is that failure is always examined.
What most Christian writers misunderstand is the context of swearing. It is possible to write a dastardly villian without a blue word passing his lips simply because the ideas being written for that person don’t require swearing. But Christians often equate evil with swearing, and that does not give justice to a truly creative cuss word! Swearing often is simply a lack of ability to communicate effectively, and so alternate words with particular connotations are substituted for ideas. When those words are then substituted with “cleansed” words like ‘darn’, ‘heck’ or ‘fudge’ the connotation is simply lost. Humor often results, a feeling inadequate to the scene created is. But an author who is able to effectively communicate the initial idea need not resort to cussing. Never having read Coben, I would guess the skillful reduction of swearing was due to just that: Skill. I imagine that as he matured as a writer, Coben was able to better communicate ideas, rather than fall back on swearing.
I almost used “Demographics” instead of “Publishing” in my header.
Yeah, there’s a huge amount of wishful thinking in self-help books. The problem I had with Allender’s book is he acknowledges that some people won’t accept a leader who follows his advice, but he offers no solutions how to overcome their objections.
I wrote a frank short story about the long-term damage caused by pornography. I used a couple words that wouldn’t make the CBA market cut, but I chickened out on the “effenheimer,” even though it was warranted and needed to be said to make the antagonist true to voice (and to the entire point of the story).
I wonder where the limits are for a Christian storyteller since storytellers, by nature, are mirrors. We’re to reflect reality, but in a way that offers redemption. My story was all about redemption. Do I get a pass then on intense scenes, frank language, and depictions of sordid circumstances? Most people would say no. I’m not as certain.
I think that in most cases, what we read does not need to go into clinical detail. But cases do exist where it must. Where then do we draw the line?
I think one of the major problems the author of today faces is the tendancy to write for the screen, rather than the mind. The imagination used to see the frustration of “The hero leaned back on his heels as he surveyed the burning shambles of his home, and swore, slowly and with great imagination” is twisted by the shortcut of the movie theater, where we have to know what those words were because we don’t have the imagination to feel the hero’s frustration without seeing his lips move and know just what it was he said. So an author fills in the blanks with frank dialog: “The hero viewed his burning home. ‘$%#&@’ He said.”
Consider scenes of societal disintigration written by Dickens versus Vonnagut, and ponder whether the level of social decay has changed, or the level of what is acceptable to read has changed. Consider the “R” rating for “Ordinary People” and ponder whether that same rating would be given today. One can often watch movies from the 30’s and know which were “pre-code” simply by what is blatant versus allusion. If we are to measure descriptive power by what words we can and cannot write in order to be accepted, then we have already begun to lose the creative battle.
Amen, Dan. I’ve told you before of the difficulties of shopping my novel.
I’ve probably told you about my experiences in the “leading with a limp” department too, but I’ll do it again. I’m probably unusual in how freely and naturally I admit my mistakes, but in ministry I’ve discovered the need to keep that tendency in check. As a congregational minister, I’ve found that being vulnerable has almost invariably resulted in someone coming back and using my self-confessed weakness against me, usually after adding an augmenting spin. Now I’m more careful. I don’t hide my weaknesses or be dishonest with the congregation, but I don’t necessarily offer up descriptions of all my faults for the world to see.
I suspect those who push the limping leader paradigm have either dealt with unusually gracious people, or else they simply aren’t very honest with themselves. Christians don’t want arrogant leaders, but we do want our leaders to be strong and faithful. And we should.
Allender does say to be judicious, but he doesn’t give guidelines. Nor does he give any insights into what to do if some can’t handle the honesty no matter how judicious one is. To me, that makes it nearly impossible to apply his book. When I thought about how I would even classify his book, I thought it might be more of a “meditation” on leadership than advice or self-help. That really muddies the water of how best to apply it in real life situations.
But as I’ve found in Christian education, everyone’s got a theory. Now show me the practice!
It ain’t fiction – it’s autobiographical, by a former female Episcopal priest – but maybe that’s why I liked Barbara Taylor’s “Leaving Church” so much. It doesn’t get any more real than that.