Rock { Christian Author } Hard Place


Mightier than the swordI'm a writer.

I know it may not show in the slapdash blog posts I toss up here, but it's true. As part of a testosterone-laden men's writing group—The Write Brothers—I have actual published authors attesting to the fact that I can string a few words together intelligibly. Even more to that point, I own a freelance writing company that covers everything from tech manuals to marketing copy to s/f novels. You name it; I write it. I've even been known to pen a highly regarded poem now and then. (Although the state of "poetry for cash" is more like "You pay us and we'll publish your poem." Somewhere, a red wheelbarrow is rusting.)

The allusion in my not-so-subtle title does not mean I will go the way of Hemingway, but it does mean that to be a Christian writer is to be a denizen of a tiny world on which a civil war rages. Piper, Sproul, Grudem, Warren, Hybels, and all those name authors don't have a clue because they're writing NON-fiction. They're oblivious to the artillery, the bloodshed, and the cries of the wounded. But as for me, well, I got drafted into the the war simply for my desire to write novels. And it ain't pretty.

I've got three novels at various stages of development, with one soon to see the conclusion and final edits, so even writing this on my blog could forever doom my work to the dark drawers of my Sixties-era desk. Yet I have to say it: being a Christian fiction writer is a lesson in compromise and multiple personality syndrome.

The irony of all this is that the market for Christian fiction is absolutely booming. These are the glory days for anyone trying to sell into what is known as the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) market. Publishers are scrambling to pump up the Christian novel jam, so if there's a genre you like to read, expect to see it soon. Someone realized a couple years ago that Christians actually READ fiction, and with the Lord of the Rings series of movies/books reaping big press in Christian circles, two and two fused together. Mix in a little Mel Gibson movie and even the secular publishers starting thinking, You know, that's a pretty substantial market we've been ignoring. They're even starting up Christian imprints just to tap the 22 million people who bought a copy of that little book called The Purpose Driven Life.

So Dan, why the "tortured artist" schtick?

My current novel project started out in the secular counterpart to the CBA, the American Booksellers Association (ABA.) I was hoping to write a science fiction title that would bring strong Christian themes and symbolism to secular readers first and Christian readers second, all without suffering from what I call "The Sledgehammer Effect." If you read enough Christian fiction, I don't have to explain this. Wink, wink—we've all had that little Gospel train steam out of the book and roll right over our cerebrums.

But along the way, this novel changed. Every time I wanted to portray my believing heroine doing the kind of things that Christians regularly do—pray, read the Bible, and so on—the scene automatically excluded the book from the secular market. Any editor reading the work would say, "But this belongs on our Christian imprint!" and there it would be sent to be branded a work of "Christian fiction," forever shuttled out of reach of the very readers I was trying to capture. The mere mention of the devoted acts we do every day and that's all he wrote.

It struck me that if C.S. Lewis were writing his Space Trilogy (the inspiration for my market ploy) today, there would be no chance that a secular publishing house would touch the books. Out of the Silent Planet would be on Tyndale or Zondervan faster than you could say, "Peretti," and that would be that. Despite the fact that your average Barnes & Noble or Borders has been increasing their Christian non-fiction titles, Christian fiction still has a long way to go for shelf space in a secular market.

So I quit the battle and went for a CBA title. It's so CBA right now that Stephen King himself could not modify it into an ABA title. However, while I managed to avoid The Sledgehammer Effect magnificently, I only opened another can of worms.

The ABA is tough for Christian novelists to crack unless they're willing to veil all their religious references. But the CBA presents its own problems because now you have to be all things to all Christians. I think you can already see the problem.

Even as the romance genre has an iron-clad list of essentials, both do's and dont's, the Christian fiction list of acceptable novelist behaviors resembles the U.S. Tax Code in its complexity. The list of traps is endless and just finding an audience that won't stab you with your Mont Blanc for violating a key doctrinal belief of theirs is nightmarish.

Want to write a novel that features a positive Christian character who speaks in tongues? Well, if you think that being tarred and feathered on John MacArthur's Web site is great PR, then go for it. Or how fast and loose do you want to play with doctrine when it comes to fantasy or s/f? My wife just read a novel that asked, What if Jesus first came in the 22nd century AD? What would His first advent look like in an age of interplanetary space travel? Although that's a great premise, you know someone out there would object. As much as I want to embody the mythopoeia that Lewis and Tolkein championed, I don't want my publisher to deal with irate letters and bad reviews on Christian Web sites because I asked "What if?" of a treasured doctrine and people felt that my treatment of it was "off." (In my novel, I do explore a major doctrine by envisioning a more drastic expression of it than what the Bible states, adding s/f elements and conjecture.)

Even Lewis is not sacrosanct. I know he'll come under new scrutiny if Disney makes references to alcoholic drinks in their upcoming Narnia films. Any readers of that series will recall that Lewis was a virtual spokesperson for breweries and vintners. So how many teetotalers have objected to Lewis's world? Quite a lot, if a quick Googling of this issue is any indication. Well, I guess I would at least be in good heretical company.

Recently, I read a post on the Brandywine Books blog from a published author who no longer seeks publication. I was told to write the very best book I had in me. That's the best kind of advice, but sadly, I don't know if that advice belongs to another, less picky age. With publishers dwindling every hour, and market realities forcing every title to be a bestseller, the pressure to appeal to most of the people most of the time is enormous. Where that leaves Christian novelists is anyone's guess. Lowest common denominator is what I fear. The Christian fiction I've read lately surely bears that out.

Truth be told, I've been utterly incapable of making it through any of the Christian fiction I've bravely attempted in the last three years. A few folks contend that the quality is rising, but I can't see it. From my perspective, should some Christian publisher decide to purchase my novel, I can view this as my joining the larger pool of books I cannot bring myself to read to the end OR I can see it as my attempt to bring something better to the pool. I guess only a publisher can determine that direction. Considering what I've said so far in this post, my chances of getting that letter that sets every hopeful author's heart a-flutter have probably already dropped at least fifty percent.

Here's another truth: this post has been sitting in draft form on Blogger since April. Only this and the previous two paragraphs are new. Why you ask? For the very reason I just stated. Biting the hand that potentially feeds at a time when publishing houses have consolidated down to the number of toes on my left foot is not all that bright. But given that some are trumpeting the new wave of Christian fiction…well, I had to add my two cents.

I'm a writer; it's what I do.

23 thoughts on “Rock { Christian Author } Hard Place

  1. Nikkiana

    Much of what you’ve said is why I’ve given up the hope of ever attempting to write or publish a novel (not that I think I’d be that good anyway). All of my concocted stories would cause the ABA to send me to the CBA and the CBA to scream scandal. I really hate marketing. Grrrrr…

    I think writing technical manuals might be a better job for me. 😉

  2. Scott

    Do you ever sleep, Dan? : ) Great post.

    I empathize with you. While I am not anywhere near the same level of seriousness with my novel writing at this point (working on a fantasy that’s been “resting” for six months), I’ve thought about the problem of which you’re speaking. It’s uncannily similar to being a Christian – too much like God for the world, too like the world for the gnat-strainers. Not quite fitting in – that seems to be some of our lots, I suppose.

    Sometimes I find the war is being waged in my own heart, guards and guides on my own imagination. The artist recoils from the telling, the churchman recoils from the showing.

    We need godly writers though, who are artists and not preachers. Keep it up, man.

  3. lindaruth

    Great post (I found you from your comment at Mark Bertrand’s blog). You should visit Faith in Fiction ( You will find many writers (some even published) who feel the same way. There’s a discussion going on and it’s a good one and I suspect you have a voice to add.

  4. I’m a night owl, but it also has to do with the fact that I’m the stay-at-home parent and it is hard for me to write when my son is up and about. My business’s writing work starts at 10PM not 10AM as a result. It is not unusual for me to be staggering to bed at 3AM. (My son for years had a habit of getting up right as I was going to bed around 1:30-2:00AM. This programming ruined me, I think, and led to massive sleep deprivation. Either my body is getting used to less sleep or I’ve entered a point of no return on the sleep deprivation scale. I know that my typing skills have deteriorated significantly in the last few years, so I suspect the latter.) I usually get about 6.5 hours of sleep a night—not enough, but what are you going to do?

    As for gnat-strainers, I wonder sometimes if truly imaginative Christian fiction in the fantasy and s/f categories is even possible without automatically incurring rebuke. In my book, I postulate a world that slavishly adheres to a particular doctrine in Christianity. And while it plays out true to that doctrine, necessary fantasy elements are included. The question then is whether someone will label me a heretic for fleshing out the major idea with elements that are too speculative. I think the treatment is brilliant and I’m surprised no one has ever thought of taking this line before, but as the writer what I think doesn’t truly matter. The last thing I’d want to see happen is for my novel to get published and then get roasted over a spit by a Christian book review site like Tim Challies runs or Stacy over at Mind & Media. I suspect that probability runs high.

    I also wonder if it even pays for a Christian to write fiction. If my work only exists to entertain, then am I honoring the Lord? If it exists to enlighten, then why not simply teach a didactic class on the topic? That’s another fine line I tread almost every day. I want to honor the Lord, but is a novel the best way for me to do that? If not, then why do it?

    Thanks for writing!

  5. Lindaruth,

    Thanks for stopping by! I found the Faith*in*fiction blog mentioned over at Bertrand’s site and will check it out. Didn’t know anyone who was blogging on these kinds of topics, so this is good. (A little networking for a hopeful writer doesn’t hurt, either!)

  6. Nikkiana,

    Write your novel to the best of your ability, but keep your perspective on selling it realistic. That is what I am trying to do.

    The writers group I mentioned that I was a part of loved a novel I was writing that was 1930s retro s/f with a Lewis Carroll bent. On the surface, it’s a young adult title, but it’s actually a very humorous critique of today’s society. The humor is for highly literate adults (there’s jabs at works by Nietzsche, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and others) while also making fun of current young adult cultural icons. My villain is an absolute hoot and he alone could get the book made into a movie. The book itself even contains a puzzle that can be deciphered and played out as a game, a la Carroll.

    The problem is that none of that plays well in the CBA market, especially since the book starts with the murder of the young mother of the two protagonists. The humor is also very dark in spots because of the villain’s insanity and his tendency to torture people at the drop of a hat. Because of the overt faith of the main characters, the book doesn’t fit in the ABA, either. My writers group said they thought the book was great, but had no market. What author wants to hear that?

    I will publish it somehow, though, even if I have to self-publish. But I want a mainstream publisher to get my work out there first. Who knows, maybe if I established myself that novel could be published the right way.

    Good luck on your writing. And get in a writers group!

  7. Joshua Lake

    Thanks for another wonderfully articulated post; you’ve really captured the irksome nature of the Christian book industry (and consequently the reason it is so tedious to sift through the shelves of both Christian fiction and non-fiction).

    I just finished reading _A South India Diary_ by Lesslie Newbigin and a line from the book struck me as particularly applicable to the questions you raise in this post.

    Newbigin says that “Yet eventually the Church, as a totally new kind of community, must challenge the older form of community, and a painful tension is set up. It is part of the mission of the Church to set up such a tension. It must not evade it either by seeking to deny and repudiate all the ties of kinship, or by capitulating to them and allowing them to have control. It must demonstrate its character as something of a wholly different order.”

    I just wanted to encourage you to remain strong and unwavering in your writing (just as you do in your faith) despite all the naysayers.

  8. jared

    Dan, you know I’m with you here.
    It can be depressing for a Christian writer who really wants to create a work of art, not merely a product.

    I recently had an editor at HarperCollins tell me my novel was too literary even for his publishing house. If it’s too literary for a mainstream press (and it’s ostensibly a “thriller”!), how in the world would I expect a Christian publisher to be interested in it, when the CBA is notorious for talking a good game when it comes to artistry but turning and around publishing the same pablum?

    I’m in the process now of editing out about 200 pages from my manuscript to make it more enticing for “bonehead Christian readers.” 😉

    There are thousands of readers out there like you and me who the CBA will never get because they think Christian readers are all like them.

    What are we going to do? We’re too Christian for the world and too smart for Christians.

  9. Scott

    It may not pay, but it does honor the Lord. Art honors him because he is Artist. And the art is what it is – not a series of lectures – it should not be reduced to “What’s it mean?” What does a tree mean? Or a brook? A sunset?

    (Maybe I need to start a Christian-Indie Publishing House for Christian writers serious about writing novels, not tracts. Is such an entity possible? Or just not possibly successful? I think there’s a bigger market than we think.)

  10. Great post, Dan. As a frustrated novelist with a degree in English, I too would like to get a novel published, the one I’m writing that concerns what happens when the “true book of Enoch” is recovered and all sorts of strange and scary things start happening. I posted a chapter from it at my blog a while back, and one person emailed me to say it was definitely suspenseful.

    Nonetheless, after looking at the publishing situation, I figured “why bother?” I guess I’ll have to stick to bloviating at Lunar Skeletons, the blog that few will dare to read.

  11. Philip

    Dan, you may have confused me with Lars Walker, a guest blogger on Brandywine Books, who is a published author but as far as I know is still pursuing publication.

  12. Jared,

    I’m not even sure I want to create a work of art. My current novel is escapist, entertaining, romantic, thrilling, eye-opening, and thoughtful. Still, I harbor no idealism that it stands up as Pulitzer material.

    I believe I have that kind of book in me and could write it. But I have too many speculative novels clamoring for attention inside me to try to write something more literary at this point. Maybe if I earn an audience that will happen. Given the vagaries of the market right now, who knows? I hate to think it’s all about the market, but if we ignore it, we’re missing the boat.

  13. Gaddabout

    I’ve been thinking about this all day, Dan. I’ve attempted to write many Christian stories with a mass appeal. It’s very difficult to write metaphorically, and most attempts end up trite and ineffective.

    I think (think, because I haven’t been successful at this myself) the secret is developing a basic good story and retrofitting the themes afterwords. I’ll let you know how it turns out when I get to the bottom of my next attempt. =)

  14. Becky

    Dan, I read your comment at J. Mark’s blog and thought I’d drop by.

    I am a fantasy writer, influenced in part by Lewis, and can identify with your sense of literary homelessness, but be assured, CBA is indeed changing.

    I went to the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference in 2004. The door to publication for a fantasy writer seemed only cracked open. I had one editor who met with me and let me pitch my WIP, then request a proposal.

    At the 2005 conference, I came away with 4 editors requesting proposals after the pitch (one of those requested a full manuscript). I also sent a proposal to two other editors who said they were open to fantasy (but it turns out, not my type). Since then, I have sent to another house that accepts unsolicited fiction proposals (just not romance).

    I’m still waiting to hear back from these editors, so I don’t know how all this increased interest will affect me, but I see the trend moving toward a wider scope of fiction in the CBA.

    BTW, in my pitch to those editors, I specifically said that my symbolism was muted, that the Christianity wouldn’t be readily noticable if they were looking for “take home value.” By the end of the trilogy, there will be no mistake, but initially? It reads like a fantasy, not like a Christian fantasy. It is definitely not allegorical. At least two of the editors said that’s what they were looking for.

    I also think the quality of fiction in the CBA is on the rise, though I think there still needs to be work in that area.

    Two authors I can recommend without reservation are Karen Hancock (fantasy) and Brandilyn Collins (suspense). There are others I would recommend with reservation.

    I do hope you come by Faith in Fiction. It’s an interesting community of writers—varied in opinions, which lends to some lively discussion similar to what you saw at Mark’s blog. We’re united in our commitment to the craft of fiction writing and to our Christian stand.

  15. Brian Colmery

    If I do say so myself, I’d be an excellent reviewer for your books, Dan…of course, that would mean I’d need some free copies…

  16. Julana

    I like the name of your writing group. 🙂

    I hear what you are saying.
    It’s interesting and understandable to fear being roasted over on Challies blog. Is this kind of consideration going to affect authors/publishers more in the future?
    (the potentially rapid response of an intelligent, critical blogging community?)
    Alternatively, could the blogging community be organized/energized to promote the type of book you are writing—before a publisher is interested?
    (It seems publishers are already using the blogging community to promote, after pubishing, which bothers me, a little.)

  17. Dee

    Great blog entry. God needs you to complete what you have started. Your writing on this entry alone has so much heart and so much of what holds us, as Christians, at bay. Writers can write about anything that strikes their fancy. But a Christian fiction writer…no dreams to do such a torture. Keep keeping on. And stop by faith*in*fiction. Someone invited me and it has helped me so much this year.

  18. I can sympathize, Dan. When I wrote my novel, both agents and publishers considered it too Christian for the popular market and too rough-edged for Christian bookstores. I ended up having it published by XLibris so that all the effort wouldn’t be wasted (It’s called Preacher, BTW). In retrospect, I think may be it just wasn’t a world class book. But many much worse novels have been published, and the fact that it didn’t fit nicely into any genre made it hard to market at all.

  19. Bob


    There’s another option that a couple writers I know have tried—finding some friends who put up some cash (or hocking a valuable possession) and starting your own publishing imprint. It’s not as hard as it thinks—you’d need to find someone to edit that you trust, someone to layout the book in Quark, and a printer. Then you’d need to market it, but given the shrinking profit margins in publishing, most writers end up doing that anyway. You’ve got a great marketing tool already in the blog. And this way you can be a change agent—by taking control of the publishing process

  20. Caleb W

    I’m currently studying English Literature & History at Cardiff University, here in the UK. My ambition is to be an author, and I’m currently planning a series of books that I have in mind – fantasy adventure, something like The Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials and Doctor Who. One of the things I’m trying to work out is exactly how to express my Christian faith in my writing. I definitely want my books to be aimed at a mainstream audience – I don’t see the Christian fiction market in Britain as worth bothering with, to be honest. But since I want it to be set partly in our own real world, it’s tricky to intergrate my great cosmic battle between good and evil with Jesus already having won the victory on the cross! So I’m having to play around with different ideas on how to resolve that to my satisfaction both artistically and spiritually. I’m very determined to try my absolute best to be a success in mainstream children’s fiction, but all I can do is write it and try and sell it to publishers to the best of my ability, and trust God for success or failure.

    I was encouraged by the success of “Shadowmancer”, a fantasy adventure set in 18th century England, written by G P Taylor, who’s a vicar (or “a lecturer in the supernatural who lives in a graveyard”, as the author biography described him!). It’s pretty blatantly Christian, and concerns a young boy who gets caught up in trying to stop the evil priest Obadiah Demurrel from getting hold of the Keruvim, which he believes will give him the power to overthrow God. It’s been doing very well in the mainstream, though initially Taylor self-published it.

    I get frustrated with the attitude of some Christians towards fiction. While discussing Harry Potter with some other Christians, I pointed out that C S Lewis draws on folklore and pagan mythology in The Chronicles of Narnia. One of them replied that they weren’t even sure if the Narnia books were all that wise for Christians to read, at which point I developed a strong urge to bang my head against a brick wall! (I’m looking forward to reading [i]The Half-Blood Prince[/i], by the way. I’m very interested to see how J K Rowling will develop the theme of the power of self-sacrificing love to overcome evil).

    You said “I’m not even sure I want to create a work of art. My current novel is escapist, entertaining, romantic, thrilling, eye-opening, and thoughtful.” Don’t you think that such a novel could be a work of art, then? 🙂

    Anyway, I pray you’ll be able to honour God with your book and tell a wonderful story (though the latter is contained in the former, of course), and also get it published. From what you’ve said, it sounds really enjoyable and I hope that I’ll have the pleasure of reading it.

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