Joseph Lacy and Mountain Reign


Joseph Lacy's 'Mountain Reign'High in the hollers of ’50s-era Kentucky, God’s grace rains down on a team of boys and one determined coach in an Appalachian school destined for destruction. In Mountain Reign, author Joseph Lacy blends the best of sports fiction with a touch of the divine as he follows the hardcourt exploits of roundballers who don’t know when they’re outgunned.

Guard Veacher Phelp’s rude upbringing in a coal mining town beset with poverty and darkened by days in the belly of the earth only spurs him onto hopes of victory in Lexington. But his Hazelwood High School Flyers, in their last year as a school, have little hope of beating the powerhouse suburban Kentucky schools—until a Melungeon outcast joins the team.

Coached by Slade Greyman, a WWII vet with a dark secret, the Flyers begin their unlikely rise to the upper echelons of Kentucky basketball in a series of heart-stopping games. But then a litany of injuries, the antagonism of the the local coal honcho, the lure of the opposite sex, the call of the mines, and the revelation of the Coach’s hidden sin threaten to undo Hazelwood’s last chance at glory.

Author Lacy packs his first novel with court-pounding action, glorious mountain scenery, heartbreak, and hope. He portrays a way of life few people know, weaving elements of Coal Miner’s Daughter and Hoosiers into the quintessential Kentucky basketball novel. And his effortless skill at hill country metaphors can’t be matched. Whoever coined the term “turn of a phrase” surely was thinking of Mountain Reign.

If you want evocative writing that epitomizes what sports fiction has to offer, Mountain Reign is a book you’ll adore.

Joe Lacy is a good buddy of mine, the perfect Kentucky gentleman, and one of the quartet that makes up The Write Brothers, my writers group. I had the privilege of reading Mountain Reign as it took shape, and I was continually amazed at Joe’s scholarship and deft phrasing. I hope soon to post Joe’s thoughts on writing in response to my rant on the state of Christian fiction. An interview here may follow.

If you’ve got a sports fan in your household or you get horse rooting for the underdog, you can pick up Mountain Reign from Amazon (just click the link or the book cover). A fine Christmas present and the perfect read to start a new year.

The Problems with Christian Fiction


But is she a good reviewer?I had H1N1 a couple weeks ago, and it seemed to me the best thing to do while hacking up a lung was to read something escapist. You’re less likely to notice the sickness when you’re lost in another world.

I’ve been trying to read a wide variety of contemporary novels to see what resonates with people. Honestly, I’m mystified at the bestselling novels because I find them exceptionally formulaic and not all that intriguing.

But what I find to be the most disheartening news comes from the A-list Christian authors of today. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a novel by a Christian author that I found worthwhile.

Now I have to qualify this comment by saying that the Christian book market is a woman’s market. One of the most damning statistics  is that the vast majority of Christian men never pick up a book after they graduate from school—save for the Bible (and I can attest that a lot of them don’t pick up that book, either, if our rampant biblical ignorance is any indication). Christian women drive nearly all the sales of Christian books, including Christian fiction.

So there’s a lot of Christian chick lit out there. Newsflash: I don’t read novels that cater exclusively to women. Christian novels aimed at women could be Pulitzer Prize-worthy and I would not know it. (So if you’re an author of Christian novels that cater primarily to women, you can take what I’m saying with a grain of salt.)

I’m speaking of mainstream Christian fiction that appeals to both sexes or leans toward male readers.

Below are the top problems I continue to find in Christian fiction. Some of these problems are inherent to all fiction, while some are exclusively issues in Christian fiction.

1. Authors still struggling with the Gospel and what it means to be  Christians who write novels

What makes a novel Christian? Increasingly, it’s hard to tell. It used to be that a novel would inevitably have a clear “THIS IS HOW TO BECOME A CHRISTIAN” chapter in it, usually depicting a character’s conversion. A few Christian authors still attempt to shoehorn such an obvious presentation into their books— and I have yet to read one of those that doesn’t feel forced. However, the trend in the most recent books has been away from proselytizing, possibly because it has felt forced and seems to bring a story to its knees—and not in a good way. What we see now are “Christian” books that contain the following:

  • A Christian character or two (though the characters are almost always nominal or backslidden Christians beholden to some mistaken beliefs about Christianity)
  • A story that contrasts “genuine” Christianity with some flaky, cartoonish, fundamentalist version
  • A story that incorporates the symbolic elements of Christianity but stripped of their inherent meanings (such as depicting angelic beings who don’t match the Bible’s descriptions of angels)
  • A pendulum swing away from goody-two-shoes heroes to ones that are almost ridiculously “overflawed”
  • No real evidence of anything inherently Christian in the novel except that it was written by a Christian

While I don’t read as many hamhanded Gospel presentations as I once did, the trend seems to be moving toward attacking other Christians. I know that two books that I selected randomly to read during my flu both set up aberrant straw man Christians sects for pummeling. This is a wrongheaded trend, as it seems to muddy the waters. If that many bogus or flawed Christian sects exist, why consider Christianity at all?

2. Increasingly high suspension of disbelief

Many of the mysteries and thrillers in Christian novel circles call upon readers to invoke an almost inhuman ability to suspend disbelief. All fiction requires an author to stretch credulity, but what I’m reading in Christian novels today is simply over the top. One story I read asked the reader to believe that an entire town quickly and elaborately conspired to deceive one visitor. What made it worse was that the visitor could have easily been sent on her way with what she wanted, with no need for the massive ruse. The “sorry we all lied to you about everything, ma’am” ending should have been written as “the author apologizes for jerking your chain for no rational reason for the last 250 pages.” In short, for those novels that are clearly not in the fairy tale or magic realism categories, the villains are too much, the escapes too implausible, the mysteries too out there, the finales too good to be true, and on and on and on.

3. Mimicking the trends in secular writing and publishing

I’m seeing more A-list writers co-authoring books with newcomers. While this has been common in the secular publishing world, the Christian publishers are now joining in. I also believe it is clear that these are less full co-authoring efforts and more riding the coattails of the A-lister. Christian publishing already tarnished its reputation with the practice of uncredited ghostwriters writing the books of nationally known pastors and Christian celebrities. Let’s not make this worse by tacking on an A-list name to a book written almost entirely by an unknown.

Also, Christian fiction’s identity crisis continues unabated, as few authors have figured out how to create a genuinely Christian genre. Too many Christian authors still watch what sells in the secular world and ape the trends. This gives us little more than derivative, lower-quality, less creative works that do nothing to enhance the stature of Christian fiction. We need works that set the standards, not mimic them.

4. Pulp writing out of A-list authors

I keep hearing the names of the next set of “literary” authors that will save Christian fiction. Then I read their books and encounter the same bush league writing issues.

One issue that seems to dominate the Christian novels I’ve read lately is what I like to call “John Vowed Never to Return to His Hometown” Syndrome. Christian authors LOVE to employ this trick of constantly reminding readers chapter after chapter that the hero John vowed never to return to his hometown—when we all know that John’s inner struggle mandates returning to his hometown. All authors do this to some extent, but again, it seems to be hammered in Christian fiction.

I’m also bothered by the emphasis that plot takes over worldbuilding, as if Christian authors are racing to tell their stories, neglecting to employ all the standard storytelling devices that root readers in the novel. Character and setting descriptions and mood are often passed over, leading to a tenuous hold on readers. I know I put down more Christian novels than secular ones simply because the author hasn’t spent enough time drawing me into the world of the novel.

Christian novels also seem to have a higher likelihood that the author will spend a lot of time recapping events. Often, the protagonist’s inner dialog is constantly rehashing what happened in the previous chapters.

Boring! I read the previous chapters. I don’t want to read them again!

In the same way, Christian fiction suffers highly from a hero running an inner dialog that asks questions beneath the reader, as the reader clearly knows that the hero’s speculations are wrong. There’s a difference between keeping the reader and the hero in the dark and flat-out lying to readers with obviously bogus speculations. Good writers do the former not the latter.

Given some of these issues, it makes me wonder if the authors are just not that good or instead genuinely believe their readers can’t follow what they are writing. Then again, if readers can’t follow the writing, perhaps the author IS bad.

Lastly, I’m bothered by the excessive padding I read in novels. All modern novels suffer from this, but the Christian novels I’ve read of late are plagued by it. What makes this even more remarkable is that I’ve already noted that many Christian novels lack sufficient worldbuilding. If those elements are missing, what’s being padded?

Too many authors repeat elements of the story or revisit a pattern of character behavior with  slight modifications. I read one novel by a Christian A-lister where the middle chapters consisted of the same two groups of people wandering around in the woods, going through the same motions, asking most of the same questions, ad infinitum. Tedious is the word that springs to mind.

And it’s tedious because there wasn’t enough story to make a full-sized book. Yet authors can’t get shorter books published because publishers blanch at the thought of printing something for adults less than 250 pages.

5. Unreliable reader reviews

It bothers me that readers rate so many books so highly on Let’s be honest here: The average book is fair to good. That’s two to three stars. And while most books are overrated on Amazon, the reviews for books written by Christian authors are stellar to the point of being ridiculous. Either readers of Christian fiction are afraid to voice a genuine opinion for fear of hurting an author’s feelings or they simply can’t distinguish a great book from an average one. Either way, the result leads to unreliable reviews. This helps Christian fiction improve not one iota.

I have more opinions on this issue, but these five points highlight the major problems.

If you read (or even write) Christian fiction, I’d like to hear your comments!

Book Thoughts


Enjoying a bookI 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!