Rebels by Jill Williamson – CSFF Blog Tour, Day 1

jillwilliamsonnewsmallSpeculative fiction, and fantasy in particular, is known for its trilogies or tetralogies or series of five or of seven, or of an unending number. With few exceptions, of the various series I’ve read, I’ve thought book one is the best. This includes The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which, despite the chronological way the books have been packaged, was the first book C. S. Lewis wrote in the Narnia series.

I’ve heard a number of writers suggest the first book is the best because the author took as long as it took to write that first book, but then when he or she was under contract, and under deadline for the rest of the series, the writing gets rushed. This explanation may be true, and it certainly seems logical.

The thing is, the end of a series seems to me to be vital for the success of the author’s next book. For example, how many readers who were so upset with the way author Veronica Roth ended her Divergent series will pick up her next book?

All that to say, I think Jill Williamson, author of this month’s CSFF Blog Tour feature, Rebels, book three of the Safe Lands series, has positioned herself very well for her next series. Of the three Safe Lands books, without a doubt, Rebels is my favorite. I really liked Captives and loved Outcasts which seemed so real, given the story premise.

There were believable quandaries: interpersonal problems, situational difficulties, cultural conflicts. But Outcasts was a middle book, deepening problems and increasing intrigue. While there was some resolution, in the end there were more problems left unsolved than ones brought to a conclusion. The question I had when I finished Outcasts was, could Rebels deliver answers in a satisfying way? I honestly thought there was too much. I didn’t see how Jill Williamson was going to pull it off.

But she did. In my opinion, Rebels is one of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in a long time. Yes, there are some threads left open, but that’s as it should be. I’ll discuss that point in more depth later in the tour. For this post, suffice it to say, I think Jill accomplished what only the best writers seem to do—her series got stronger with each book, and the final installment in the trilogy was the strongest of all.

Of course the beauty of the CSFF Blog Tour is that you don’t have to take my word for it. You can compare what I say about the book with what others participating in the tour are posting.

See what the following CSFF members thought about Rebels. (Reminder: a checkmark takes you to a tour article I’ve already found). Also, note that a number of participants, thanks to the generosity of the publisher Blink, have an extra copy of the novel they are giving away. You might want to get your name into the mix at one of these sites. (Special recommendation for Audrey Sauble‘s giveaway because you can earn extra points by linking to another CSFF tour post!)

Published in: on September 29, 2014 at 5:40 pm  Comments (3)  
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How Important Are The Details?

pick, pickIn more than one article critiquing the Mark Burnett/Roma Downey TV mini-series The Bible, reviewers pointed out “picky” details–Adam portrayed as a European-ish white guy, not an African or a Middle Easterner. And beardless. More than once I read remarks about the angels outfitted much like Ninja warriors.

Are details like this important?

My first thought is, Come on, people, quite being so picky.

But hold on.

Aren’t the picky things noticeable when they pull us out of the story? Just recently I read a post by agent Steve Laube about inconsistencies in novels that editors don’t catch but readers do. It reminded me of a book I recently read in which basketball details were wrong.

For example, Team A faced off against Team B in the NBA finals, with Team B hosting game 1. Some pages later the series is 3-2 and game 6 is being played at Team A’s home court.

But hold on. Fans of pro basketball know the finals are a 2-3-2 format–games 1,2,6 (if necessary), and 7 (if necessary) are played at the home of the team with the best over all regular season record. Games 3, 4, and 5 (if necessary) are played at the home of the two seed. So no way could game 6 be played on Team B’s home court if game 1 was at Team A’s.

There was a similar stumble earlier connected with basketball (in the NBA, only one free throw when a technical foul is called) and another one with the weather in Southern California (a week of rain in May? Right! Doesn’t happen!) And another one on a cross-country drive. Three days, the character determines. It will take three days to reach her destination. She starts out on a Sunday and arrives … on a Sunday. O-o-kay.

But here’s the thing. If I were writing a review of this book, I would feel like I was being overly critical to point out these slips. I mean, did any of those matter in the long run? No. Will people who are not basketball fans, or residents of SoCal, even notice? Probably not. Does the day of the week really matter? Not really. Then what’s the big deal?

Do the details in fiction matter?

Actually, yes, they do. The details give the story a sense of credibility. I’ve said before, one of the things I think J. K. Rowling did so well was construct an incredible fantasy world. Others say she merely played off British boarding schools and that may be true. But through the details Ms. Rowling included, the world of magic came alive.

Horseless carriages that convey themselves, a sorting hat, a whomping tree, portkeys, food that appears in dishes on the dining tables, a ceiling that reflects the weather outside, broken wands mis-repaired that send spells incorrectly–on and on, each detail woven into the story with a high degree of consistency. There weren’t three school houses in one book and four in another. The new students weren’t placed in theirs by the Sorting Hat in one and by the Sword of Gryffindor in another.

Of course, the longer the book, the greater number of details there are to keep straight. An epic story like the seven Harry Potter books requires a great deal of work to keep all the details straight.

But I’ll come back to the point–why does it matter? I said credibility or realism, if you will, and that’s perhaps the greatest point, but in tangent is the fact that inconsistencies may pull readers out of the “fictive dream.” Rather than living side by side with the characters, the reader stops: Wait a minute, didn’t she say the trip took three days, and didn’t she leave on a Sunday? Then how can they be arriving on a Sunday? Did I miss something?

Lack of clarity can do essentially the same thing. The details might be right, but if they aren’t expressed clearly, the reader is still stopping, still looking back and checking to see why what she thought had been conveyed actually was something different.

So yes, details matter. At least they should.

Do editors give a pass to certain authors because they know readers will buy, read, love, and praise their books no matter what? To rectify this, should reviewers actually start pointing out inconsistencies . . . or will the point be lost because others will cry, Stop being so picky!

What do you think? Do you notice inconsistencies? Do you think those things should be pointed out in reviews?

Truth In Fiction, Or truth In Fiction?

Among Christian writers there is this ongoing debate about what our fiction should look like. I’m convinced the differences stem from purpose. Not overall purpose. I believe writers on both sides of the fence who say they want to glorify God, mean what they say. However, some believe they do so by writing the best story possible, while others believe they do so by writing a story about His work in the lives of people.

The former writers maintain that a well-written story must be realistic and therefore show the human condition as it is, F-bombs and all. Life is messy and not everyone comes to Christ in the end. Atheists who Christians pray for still die of cancer without making a public profession of faith. Christians have unfaithful spouses and give birth to autistic children. Some get fired, and some have ungodly elders who manipulate and bully the flock they should help to shepherd.

These writers want to write truthful stories.

On the other side, however, are writers who also want to write realistic fiction, factoring in that God’s forgiveness and redemption through Jesus Christ is real. Life is messy, but God can use the mess to greater purpose. People experience forgiveness and release from the stranglehold of sin. God answers prayer. He changes people inside out and that makes a difference.

These writers want to write Truthful stories.

Think with me for a second about Abraham’s nephew Lot. The truth about his life isn’t pretty. Given the choice, he picked the best land, the fertile valley near Sodom. Eventually he moved into town. When God brought judgment on the sinful place, Lot hesitated to leave. The angels finally had to pretty much drag him to safety. He argued with them about where to go, and then changed his mind when they accommodated him. Having lost his wife and isolated from the rest of civilization, he allowed his daughters to get him drunk and sleep with him. Both got pregnant, so Lot became father to his grandsons. Now that’s messy. And truthful.

But there’s also something Truthful about Lot that we learn in 2 Peter.

If [God] condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destruction by reducing them to ashes, having made them an example to those who would live ungodly lives thereafter; and if He rescued righteous Lot, oppressed by the sensual conduct of unprincipled men (for by what he saw and heard that righteous man, while living among them, felt his righteous soul tormented day after day by their lawless deeds), then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from temptation, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment for the day of judgment, (2:6-9 – emphasis mine)

The bottom line of Lot’s life is that he was righteous and that he served as an example for us to know that God rescues the godly from temptation. That’s Truthful.

But here’s the pertinent point for this discussion about fiction: the author of Genesis never mentioned Lot being a righteous man or that he served as an example for others. The truth about Lot’s life just lay there among the stories of faithful Abraham and obedient Noah and scheming Jacob, letting the reader come to his own conclusion.

Until Peter came along, and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote the Truth about Lot’s life.

My belief is, we need both–truth and Truth. We obviously need both in Scripture or God wouldn’t have given us both. But I believe we need both in fiction, too. How great if writers working toward one or the other would see those aiming for the opposite as partners completing a picture rather than inferior or misguided.

Published in: on August 15, 2012 at 6:00 pm  Comments (2)  
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Showing God In Fiction Via The Protagonist

Earlier this month Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees hit a home run for his 3000 hit of his career, the first player wearing pinstripes to do so. This was big news, but someone else has crowded Jeter out of the limelight, at least a little. In the stands Christian Lopez, a recent college grad with a sizable school debt, caught the ball … and gave it back.

Those in the know say that record-setting ball could have brought between $200,000 and $1,000,000 from sports memorabilia collectors. But Lopez gave it back to Jeter, saying that he knew how important it was to the player. After all, he’d worked his whole life to get to that point. The ball was a symbol of what he had achieved and rightly belonged to him.

Some fans say Lopez played the fool. Others claim the Yankees conned him out of the ball. No one seems inclined to believe that the young man acted on a set of principles that outweighed any monetary gain or fast-talking arm twisting.

I have no idea what motivated Christian Lopez, but the key point here is, people are talking and writing about him because he did something unexpected. Unexpectedly generous. One writer asked, “What does it say about the Yankees, Mr. Jeter and our society that multi-millionaires and billionaires knowingly (and happily) accept the charity of a young man in debt?”

My question is, what does it say about the young man, acting out of step with the rest of the actors in that situation? He alone, who could least afford it, acted sacrificially.

As a result, people notice. And talk. And write. And ask, what would I have done in that situation? Is there a right or a wrong in the decision to keep the ball or give it back?

But what does any of this have to do with God and fiction?

If a simple act of kindness that cost a needy young man a sizable amount of cash can generate this kind of discussion, why can’t a character in a novel do something like this?

A Christian character, who’s faith has been established, steps up and does something out of step with what society expects. And all hell breaks lose. Literally. Temptations come his way. Criticism.

Think Joseph rejecting Potiphar’s wife. Clearly he was acting in a way that was contrary to what Mrs. Potiphar expected. And probably to what most of Egyptian society would have expected, because he made a decision, not based on his hormones but based on his relationship with the Living God.

Do we not write those stories in our novels today because we think they are too unbelievable? Would such a character seem too good for most of us to relate to?

But that’s the point, isn’t it? If we want to show God, somehow we have to show good. Not in a cliched way, not necessarily with everything turning out great in the end.

Perhaps in our stories the protagonist who sacrifices needs to end up in jail. But he’s singing. Or praying. Or telling somebody else how glad he is that God gave him the strength to resist.

Maybe that’s too over the top and no one can relate to a guy willing to go that far for his love for Christ. For this same reason, I don’t think the Apostle Paul is the Bible figure most people identify with. It’s Peter because he was just as apt to do the wrong thing as to do the right.

So maybe we take a Peter and show him giving his last dime to get his high school buddy set up in an apartment — the buddy who just got out of jail for molesting his cousin when he was still a minor. Or some other self-sacrificial thing that’s out of step with society.

Wouldn’t that get people thinking and talking? What kind of a God is this jerk following? What kind of a God is this compassionate young man following?

What do you think? Might not protagonists doing the unusual be a powerful way to show God in fiction?

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For earlier posts on the subject see “Realism In Fiction,” “When God Shows Up In Fiction,” and “God In Contemporary Fiction, Another Take.”

Published in: on July 14, 2011 at 5:36 pm  Comments (1)  
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God In Contemporary Fiction, Another Take

Typically readers learn about characters, not by what the author says about them or how he describes them, but by what they do. Since God does not appear in our world as a corporeal being, it’s not easy for an author to show Him in action. I mean, how is the reader to know that the protagonist’s near miss on the freeway was God’s doing?

How do we know in real life? How do we know what God is “saying” to us or how He is leading us?

Often times it’s the accumulation of things — an open door here, a closed door there, a passage of Scripture, a specifically themed article followed by a sermon much like it, and so on. But those things don’t make for great fiction.

Neither does God coming in to save the day in answer to prayer, though He might do so in real life. In fiction it looks like authorial manipulation. The story seems contrived.

The truth is, life is contrived, more than we’d like to admit. God is sovereign, after all. Yet we humans, made in His image, have the freedom to choose. So what does that combination look like in fiction?

I’ve been playing around with different options for showing God in a contemporary story, and what I keep coming back to is showing Him through a relationship with the protagonist. The reader, then, not being able to see how God acts, can see how the person trusting in God acts.

I’m still not sure where the conflict should be, but I came across this quote on Facebook, posted by the C. S. Lewis Society of California:

Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys. – C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Besides making me want to reread the book, I saw a kernel of a story there. Not the demon’s involvement, but a protagonist still obeying in the face of events that look as if God has abandoned him.

The protagonist’s unyielding obedience, then, would serve to show us God — that He is worthy of that kind of trust, that kind of service. That His love matters more than whatever earthly stuff holding on to Him might cost.

I still think showing God truly, so that readers come away after reading the story knowing Him more, or at least being curious enough to want to know Him more, has to be some of the hardest writing a novelist can undertake.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced this is what sets Christian fiction apart from all other fiction.

Christians or non-Christians can write about troubled teens who hurt themselves or others. All writers can tell stories about angst-driven adults who have been disillusioned. Christians can show the world truly and sinful man’s nature in all its ugliness in the same way that non-Christians can.

Both can also show the moral thread that runs through men and women, making some determined to fight for justice and others choosing to live by the rules of their own making.

However, only Christians can include God in a story and have Him appear as He really is. Non-Christians can’t because they don’t know Him. Of course we Christians don’t know all there is to know about God, and our stories shouldn’t lead people to believe that we have Him tamed.

But neither should they make readers think God is unknowable or inaccessible or uninterested or absent.

Part of creating great art is addressing universal themes and telling the truth about them. Hitler had a distinct worldview but it was false. If he had been a talented painter or a great writer, he still would have been writing about that which was false. There is no beauty apart from truth.

Hence, today’s Christian novelists, should we wish to create artistic stories, must write about life in a way that unveils truth about far more than man and his behavior in the bedroom. We need to stop worrying about what we can and cannot write according to publishers’ strictures and put our shoulders to the task of writing what needs to be written, what only Christians can write — stories that tell the truth about God.

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For earlier posts on the subject see “Realism In Fiction” and “When God Shows Up In Fiction.”

The discussion continues with “God In Fiction Via The Protagonist.”

When God Shows Up In Fiction

In “Realism In Fiction,” I pointed out that rarely, if ever, do writers advocating for realism in human characters indicate that there needs to be more realism in our representation of God and His work in the world.

I find this imbalance disquieting. For one thing, I think it takes little talent to put four-letter words in the mouth of a reprehensible character, something realist advocates say is necessary to make such characters believable. Use of language in that way is cheap and easy. In contrast, I think it takes an amazing amount of skill to make the invisible God appear in a novel as a present and active part of the story.

But more importantly, I am troubled that we seem to care more that humans are depicted accurately than we care whether or not God is depicted accurately.

Perhaps the difficulty of the task discourages some writers from trying. After all, if we ask, as C. S. Lewis did for Narnia, how would God show up in a world such as this, we see that He does so through His word, through the preaching of His word, through the Holy Spirit speaking to individuals in ways that are consistent with His word.

I suggest those are the ways that contemporary Christian fiction has shown God since its inception, but these are the very elements that earned Christian stories the “preachiness” label. I tend to think that execution was more at fault than the traditional means by which God relates to His people, but I don’t think I’m going to convince very many people.

Hence, if a novel shows a character listening to a sermon, the cry of “preachiness” is sure to follow. Same if the character reads a passage from the Bible or a friend shares a Biblical truth. In other words, our fear of falling under the condemnation of being preachy has nearly handcuffed Christian authors from showing in a story how God works in our world.

In addition, few writers seem willing to tackle the hard truths — the fictional Jim Elliots or Corrie ten Booms or Joni Eareckson Tadas or George Mullers. It’s easier to say God loves you when no one dies. But the truth is, people do die and God still loves the world.

Even more difficult would be the fictional Ananias and Sapphira who received a death sentence for their conspiratorial sin. How hard to show God’s wrath and judgment. Those aren’t twenty-first century user-friendly images of God. Can we pull off showing the things about God that seem to collide with what we want Him to be like?

When I write posts like this, I am so thankful that I write fantasy, because I have to say, I don’t know how I would show God in this world. I love showing Him in a unique way in fantasy. But in a contemporary story, it’s a whole lot harder, a much greater challenge.

I know a writer who is tackling a difficult story without softening the lens or putting a slight glow over God’s head. I haven’t read her manuscript, so I don’t know how it’s working out, but I commend her efforts.

Do readers want to think deeply about God, to moved past the glad-to-meet-you stage, even past the acquaintance stage? I think there are indications that make me think so, but even if not, I’d still say we need stories that make the attempt. That’s where realism really lies, and it’s a lot more important — eternally important — than whether or not we show a human character slugging back a beer.

– – –
See also “God In Contemporary Fiction, Another Take”

Published in: on July 12, 2011 at 6:23 pm  Comments (11)  
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Realism In Fiction

Don Quixote de la Mancha started out being a realist, but in the end he lost what was most true.

Today much discussion in the Christian writing community focuses on realism, or telling the truth in fiction.

Some authors have banded together to support their “edgier” brand of fiction — by which they apparently mean stories that don’t hesitate to include sexual passion without actually showing sex. (The only novel I read from these particular authors included lots of desire and passionate kissing but no nudity or copulation).

Others push to do away with sanitized language. Sinners should talk like sinners, the reasoning goes. Anything less isn’t realistic.

Some complaints claim erroneously that certain topics are off limits in Christian fiction — prostitution or sex trafficking, for example. These are real issues, these critics say, and the topics should be dealt with in story, and they should be handled in a realistic way.

Still others falsely believe that a certain conservative value set must be adhered to in Christian fiction — no dancing, drinking, or smoking for instance. Those who push for realism say that stories should show these human activities in a realistic way without making value judgments.

I understand these arguments which often come from other writers wishing to see Christians create stories of high caliber. Realistic stories are the present gold standard, not morality tales. Consequently, these writers are making a plea, in their minds, for the best kind of writing.

What I have asked more than once, however, is why these writers who want realism in fiction don’t demand as much realism in the depiction of God as they do of human behavior.

Why are we not up in arms about how shallow or weak or absent God comes off in novel after novel bearing the Christian label? We complain about humans appearing out of touch with the world or behaving in ways that are not consistent with reality, but we are silent about God appearing as out of touch with His creation or inconsistent with His self-revelation.

God might be incidental to a story, an add-on “faith element,” and no one is complaining. No one is standing up and saying how such stories aren’t real.

Why is it OK to do a poor job of showing God in a real way, but it is not OK to show humans in a real way? And if it’s not, why aren’t we saying so with the same frequency we decry the absence of realism in human behavior?

Is it because we think humans are more real than God? Is it because we don’t believe God plays a part in the gritty details of life we want to show in our novels?

I’m grasping for ideas here.

As I see it, pushing for realism ought to start with showing God as He is. How can anything else, then, come off as better than it is? Man next to a pure and holy God isn’t going to look sanitized or righteous.

The best way to paint a realistic picture of Man is to first paint a realistic picture of God. Without showing God as He really is, stories will never be realistic. They might be partially real, but they will never be telling the whole truth.

Having said that, I think it’s important to add, stories don’t show all truth. I don’t think that’s possible.

However, stories should show truth about whatever subject they cover. Since Christian fiction is often about God, doesn’t it seem logical, then, that the most important truth Christian fiction tells is about God?

Who cares if the characters swear or don’t swear if God comes off looking incidental? Who cares if a character drinks or doesn’t drink if God is absent in a “Christian” novel?

The one thing that is the distinctive of Christian fiction is the one thing that only Christian fiction can do — tell the truth about God.

Some fiction might be moral. Some might focus on psychological or physical aspects of humanity rather than spiritual. Stories dealing in those realms should be realistic.

But how can we be outraged that a foul-mouthed character doesn’t speak in four-letter words when we aren’t outraged that our sovereign God isn’t depicted as just and powerful and righteous?

In our quest for realism in fiction, it seems to me, we’re aiming our lances at windmills.

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For further discussion, see also “When God Shows Up In Fiction”

Published in: on July 11, 2011 at 8:07 pm  Comments (19)  
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