Mount Hermon Report 2008, Part 4

Being April Fools Day and all, I really should post some sort of gag article. I could invent a six figure contract for The Lore of Efrathah with Thomas Nelson or something, but I think the joke would actually be on me! 😀

So I’ll eschew the opportunity and plod along with our series.

I mentioned yesterday that Brandilyn Collins introduced me to Zondervan editor Sue Brower. During the first workshop slot, Sue was teaching “Writing Popular Fiction—Commercialism vs. Craft.” I’d considered that seminar along with another one taught by agent Mary Beth Chappell, but meeting Sue tipped the scales, and I’m glad.

She gave one of the best explanations of the difference between “popular” (sometimes called “genre” or “commercial”) fiction and “literary” fiction (sometimes called “boring” 😀 OK, that was my editorial comment!)

In essence, here’s what I understood:

Popular fiction

  • follows defined genre rules
  • is the fiction of emotion
  • the purpose is to evoke feelings
  • holds the goal to entertain
  • values plot first, then character and theme

I think she also says it sells. 😉

Literary fiction

  • is the fiction of ideas
  • the purpose is to evoke thought
  • the goal is self-expression
  • values character first, then theme and plot

So as she’s talking, I’m thinking, Why do these have to be mutually exclusive? Aren’t the best stories thought-provoking, even as they make the reader laugh or cry?

But there’s more. Sue separated Christian fiction from these other two categories. I didn’t get all the points down. First, Christian fiction reflects the evanelical worldview. Last, it has been theme-driven, with characters or plot coming along in second place.

Interestingly, her next point was “Popular, literary, and Christian are not mutually exclusive.” Christian, she said, has expanded to mean a Christian worldview. This means the story might have Christian themes (ones that should not overwhelm the rest of the story), Christian characters, or Christian plot.

Much of the rest of the time, Sue talked about injecting literary writing into popular fiction, not compromising literary standards, and writing a well-crafted, creative, popular novel.

One thing she reiterated was creating a unique voice. Specifically, she said, “Never allow rules to constrain voice.”

That’s one of my favorite lines. I’ve started a private tirade against the Browne-and-King-ing of Christian fiction (called such in honor of Self-editing for the Fiction Writer, an excellent instruction manual when not turned into a rule book). We are so tied to the “rules” of fiction, we sanitize stories to death. No wonder editors jump at the new and different.

Interestingly, Sue said, “To make commercial fiction viable, write for the reader.” Later she reminded us that writing is a business, which means editors are looking for stories that will sell the most units.

None of that bothers me. I’ve said over and over (and over and over) that writing is communication. A writer ought not write a book for the sake of purging his own soul. Save that for journal writing. Rather, to put a piece of writing in the public forum should mean I have something I think the public will want to know—either because it is so interesting or entertaining or powerful or life-changing or … whatever.

But here’s where my thinking diverges with what Sue was saying. I want to write, not just “for the market,” because, as I see it, market tastes change. Instead, I think some books should be written to last. Might they be popular today? Possibly. But the key is, they’ll also be around in ten, twenty, fifty years, should the Lord tarry.

I don’t see “trendy” books lasting. Of course not every book is aiming to go the duration, but shouldn’t some?

Published in: on April 1, 2008 at 11:44 am  Comments (5)  
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  1. “One thing she reiterated was creating a unique voice. Specifically, she said, “Never allow rules to constrain voice.”

    YAAAAAY!!! Hallelujah! And Amen, even.

    “Interestingly, Sue said, “To make commercial fiction viable, write for the reader.” Later she reminded us that writing is a business, which means editors are looking for stories that will sell the most units.”

    These kinds of quotes blow me away simply because so few novels in ABA or CBA–it doesn’t seem to matter–sell large quantities or even make their advances. To me it speaks volumes about how potentially “misinformed” the pub boards are about what people (the reading public) really want to read. Either that or the marketing teams have no clue how to sell a variety of books. The statistics tell a story that no one is addressing.


  2. wow, Becky. When you were a teacher did you ever have a student as good as yourself?

    I sat through that same workshop and loved what Sue had to say. And by the end of the week I’d forgotten it. I mean, I think it soaked in and I owned it, but I sure couldn’t have spit it out two weeks later. Yikes! You’re like the super note taker or something. I’m very impressed.

    Oh, and about what she had to say? Yeah, that was a really good workshop.


  3. Wasn’t it C.S. Lewis who told Tolkien that they’d just have to write the kind of stories they wanted to read?? And they did…and the rest is history! Not sure anyone will ever ‘quite’ equal their work – their interests and, especially, their erudite education would be difficult to match these days.

    But they certainly became ‘commercial’ while not setting out to do so.
    Kathy – a librarian who couldn’t write a novel to save her life but loves to read them.


  4. Nicole, you reacted much as I did. I was happy, happy, happy to hear that “rule-breaking” line, but then a little mystified by the “write-for-the-reader” portion. The thing is, the reading public so rarely agrees on what they want to read, but when they do, no one can seem to figure out why that particular work captured a large audience.

    And of course, I have no sales figures to pull out as proof that I do know. It’s just a little stunning to me when I hear, as I did on a CD this morning from Angela Hunt’s 2007 Mount Hermon Fiction Seminar that most novelists, her included, don’t earn out. Wow!



  5. Sally, you make me laugh! 😀

    You know I don’t have a good “verbatim” memory, so yes, I learned the importance of taking good notes. I think I’m rusty though, because I missed parts of Sue’s descriptions of literary and Christian fiction.

    A good thing about blogging on the subject: now I’ll remember it better without having to look up my notes.

    Kathy, I’m not sure whether it was Lewis or Tolkien. Sounds like something either of them would say. I’m pretty certain they weren’t caught up with being commercially successful. Times, they have changed, unfortunately. The world has become exceedingly … profit-oriented.

    But here’s where I find great peace because I am a Christian. I feel responsible to do my best at writing and pursuing publication, but whether or not my work ends up in print is God’s call.

    And yea for reading librarians! 😉



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