Do Christian Writers Read Enough?


You hear it all the time as part of author interviews or writing instructor advice–read, read, read, and then read. But why? Shouldn’t writers be more concerned about writing, not reading?

The truth is, reading is as important to learning to write well as listening was to learning to speak. As children, we didn’t learn to speak by going off to a corner by ourselves and babbling in baby talk. If that’s all we did, day in and day out, we would never have learned what we were supposed to say when we wanted up or Dada or more.

Not only did we learn our vocabulary from listening, we learned sentence structure and grammar. If you had parents like mine, they corrected you if you said, I seed a dog or I swinged high. But chances are, you didn’t make those mistakes more than once or twice because you never heard your parents make them. In other words, learning to speak comes from imitation.

Learning to write is similar. By reading good stories, writers imitate, unconsciously, how to structure a plot, create conflict, develop a character, enhance the mood, establish a pace, and much more.

The thing is, writing fiction is not a static endeavor. Like language itself, it’s dynamic and therefore, what worked for Mark Twain back in the nineteenth century isn’t necessarily going to work in the twenty-first century.

Hence, part of a writer’s work is to read current fiction–good books that are coming out this year or last.

We’re having a discussion over at Spec Faith about Christian speculative fiction writers, and Fred Warren left a comment that said in part,

We buy each other’s books and trade “critiques” that are mostly affirmations and then wonder why the rest of the world (or the rest of the Christian fiction community) doesn’t understand how great we are.

Ouch!

But is Fred wrong?

I’ll say this. I’ve asked questions in posts at Spec Faith before about what current Christian speculative stories people are reading, and the results have been discouraging. Sure, if we opened the question up to the classics, everyone had read Tolkien or Lewis or Chesterton or MacDonald. Beyond that, few authors came to the forefront.

Is that because there are no good Christian speculative writers today? No. I could name a half dozen with ease. But shouldn’t every Christian speculative writer be able to do the same thing? Shouldn’t we know who is writing in our genre and who is at the top?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t also read general market fiction as well. There are good, quality stories that we can learn from though we must be certain we don’t decide simply to write a clean version of those books. Christians should want more than a baptized retread, and Christian writers should want to offer the “new song” God can put in our mouths, not an old song with bleeped lyrics.

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Published in: on October 9, 2012 at 5:15 pm  Comments (4)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – Residential Aliens, Day 3


Part 1 of Jeff Chapman's story in Residential Aliens

In my last post, I mentioned my plans, in conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour of the zine Residential Aliens, to do a review, but left the subject of such, up in the air. For a moment I was tempted to turn the table and review the blog participants! 😀 Now that could have resulted in some interesting discussion, don’t you think?

I also considered doing a review of one of the stories, but Bruce Hennigan, Jeff Chapman, and our newest member, Dean Hardy, among others, gave excellent reviews in their posts.

I considered giving a review of editor extraordinaire Lyn Perry himself, but Fred Warren beat me to that one and did a much better job than I could have, by far.

Well, there’s the obvious — a review Residential Aliens as a whole. Yep, you guessed it: on Monday Sarah Sawyer posted an article taking a critical look at the site.

So here’s what I decided after reading Shannon McDermott‘s post giving a thorough overview of Residential Aliens: I’m going to review the short story. Not a short story — the genre, short story.

Early in my writing career, I read that learning to write the short story was so unique and different from writing a novel that it required its own set of skills. That was enough to scare me off. I had my hands full trying to learn what I needed for my novel.

Then along came a little short story contest held by World Magazine. They wanted stories written from a Christian worldview, and they posted the submissions on line, allowing others to comment or critique.

Well, that was interesting. The upshot was, I decided writing short stories looked like a lot more fun than I’d imagined. And doable.

Not long after, Bethany House editor Dave Long began to hold short story contests which I entered. And I had the bug.

I’m not sure if it was the short story bug or the contest bug (probably the latter), but one thing I discovered — short stories afforded me the opportunity to experiment with voice, point of view, story structure, and whatever else I wanted to play with. In short, I discovered that short stories are a great boon to a writer.

Not only did they help me learn my craft, I actually sold a couple stories and had some modest success in a couple contests. That feedback was encouraging.

Now I’d recommend to any writer starting out to begin with short stories.

But what about for readers? I rarely read short stories these days. And yet, I find myself eighty pages into an anthology of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories, and I love them.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I don’t shy away from short stories as much as they shy away from me. Magazines don’t carry them any more (even Writer’s Digest which used to publish the winner of their Short, Short Story Competition, now puts it online, not in their magazine). I don’t get a Sunday school paper as I used to — those were always good for a story or two. And I’m no longer subscribed to the one or two magazines that may still carry short stories.

I have to say, I’m not fond of reading stories on the computer. I tend to think of reading as a chance to settle back and enjoy, not sit at a desk. Consequently free ezines hold less appeal to me than novels.

But then I see that Residential Aliens has multiple formats available, and I think, here’s an editor/publisher who understands the transitional world in which we live. One day, I suspect, everyone except the rare book collector will be reading from eReaders of some sort. But today we are in flux, and the more formats offered, the better the chance that readers of one stripe or another will find the stories.

May that be true of those Residential Aliens has published.

Let’s All Write the Same


I hope you realize I’m being facetious by suggesting all writers should write in the same way. However, I sometimes get the feeling that advocates of certain writing approaches think this outcome would be desirable.

I recently read a review that criticized a work for what it did NOT do, as if all works had, in fact, to do exactly the same thing. Now if the criticism was that the story did not have a likable protagonist or it did not have sufficient conflict or a central theme, then I would understand. These are things necessary to every story. But this was not the case.

Instead this criticism centered on a style. I’ll use an example. James Scott Bell, in his excellent book Plot & Structure advocates using the “three-act structure.” Does that mean this is the only structure a novel can follow?

Apparently some people believe so, religiously, to the point of criticizing any novel that dares to use a different structure as if it is inferior or deficient. The fact is, the three-act structure is one way of telling a story, but not the only way. James Bell himself says so:

Can You Play With Structure?
Of course. Once you understand why it works, you are free to use that understanding to fit your artistic purposes … So grasp the worth of structure, then write what you will.
– p. 24

Jim does go on to say that even in non-linear plots eventually the same elements and information found in a plot organized into three acts will also surface.

But what if a reviewer uses the three-act structure as his bible for The Way Stories Should Be, and he comes across a story like Lost Mission by Athol Dickson? Anyone reading the various posts during the CSFF Blog Tour for this book probably knows Athol did not follow the three-act structure.

And I suggest, the literary world is better for it. We’re better for books like George Bryan Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon, too, that creates “story movement” as John Truby calls it, through a means other than linear story telling.

My point is simply this: when an author is allowed to actually create, his work may be very different from some of the patterns advocated in writing instruction books. Truth is, it may be inaccessible, as I find A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be, no matter how acclaimed a writer James Joyce is. But it also might be brilliant and award winning (think, Gilead by Marianne Robinson) and wonderfully fresh and even wildly successful (think Harry Potter).

The alternative is for authors to put creativity aside and work exclusively within the cookie-cutter structure of screenplays. All books would soon become predictable (have you started noticing that the least likely suspect is almost always the culprit?) and characters, interchangeable.

The same is true of any other dearly held belief about writing. Some of the oft repeated writer advice—avoid an omniscient point of view, strip away all adverbs, don’t use “was,” kill off -ing words, and so on—ends up sterilizing writing. No longer does an author have a unique voice, a creative story, a fresh approach. Instead, it all needs to sound the same, only better.

I think the “only better” part is accurate. I’m taking issue with the hard and fast approaches that render fiction too much the same.

Mount Hermon in a Nutshell


I don’t think I can ever do justice in a blog post to a writer’s conference like the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference. Much of the value comes from the interaction with the people, and most of these are unplanned. Well … by me, anyway. I’m pretty sure God planned them from before the beginning of time! 😉

Some years, I’ve learned practical writing technique information or had especially helpful critiques. Other years the Keynote speaker has had wonderful, humorous, helpful things to say. Then there have been years when I learned more about the business side of things, especially how books are actually acquired.

This year’s conference was different. Yes, I had a great Major Morning Track with Rebeca Seitz of Glass Road Public Relations, LLC. But I think the over all value for me was two-fold.

One came in the people I encountered. From unexpected sources I received ideas, encouragement, support. There were unlikely connections, such as learning that Deb Raney calls home the little town my family moved to the one year we lived in Kansas, or meeting Doug Wolven, a new writer and first-time Mount Hermon attender who lives a mile or so from my place.

Other folks seemed divinely placed in my path to give me a piece of information I needed at a timely moment. Carol was one such person, Wendy another, and Kim, a third.

In a fiction class, I was most surprised by what became, from my perspective, the second great aspect of Mount Hermon this year. Author Marlo Schalesky started the workshop by getting on what she called her soapbox.

She said, to write because we want to isn’t good enough. Christians are called by God to affect lives. If we as writers can show readers God, from wherever we stand, they will know Him better. Story can be the vehicle because it is powerful; it can move and change people.

I love that focus.

Learning Plateaus


We often hear about the “learning curve” but infrequently about the learning plateau. Educators understand that these leveling off places exist, and curriculum is often created with the plateaus of the “average” student in mind.

What I’m thinking about though, has to do with writers and our learning plateaus. It seems to me that some writers continue to grow from book to book. The characters are more realistic, the plot more engaging, the theme stronger even as it is more subtle.

Then there are writers who … well, frankly, they seem to be in ruts. One book is so very much like the novel before it. The characters seem interchangeable, the plot void of anything surprising. Why, I wonder, do these authors seem to climb hard, reach a plateau, and stop growing in their writing?

Here are my best guesses.

1) A schedule that doesn’t allow the person to spend time studying the craft or reading fiction as they once did. So many writers now seem to spend their time flying from rough draft to marketing event to edits to interviews and back to the next rough draft.

2) Adequate sales. I imagine it’s hard to think writing should improve when 50,000 people are buying an author’s books, less so if the sales top 100,000. Or more.

3) Fan mail. If readers are emailing an author to gush over their latest and greatest book, why would that writer think, “I have to do better”?

But here’s what I’m thinking. If a novel has a delightful character, a textured setting, an engaging plot with unpredictable twists, a timeless but subtle message, why wouldn’t that author “break out” and become a best seller?

Could it be that something is missing? That the author only thinks all those parts are in place?

Or maybe the author isn’t aiming for the best seller list. Maybe the author knows the message isn’t subtle or isn’t timeless. Maybe a predictable plot is just fine because the target audience keeps coming back for more.

But my question is, How will an author know how far he could reach if he settles on the plateau? How will he know how high his audience is willing to go with him unless he continues to climb?

Has the perfect book ever been written? I don’t think so. Name a book, and before long, someone will stand up and say why they didn’t particularly like it, though a majority of readers might say it was The Best Novel every.

I think, for example of The Book of the Dun Cow by Walter Wangerin, a book one blogger has recently raved about, a book so many at Faith in Fiction loved. I tried to read it. Started about three times. And the last time, I made it probably half way before putting it down. I don’t love it. Rather the book feels painful to me to read. It is not something I will ever finish, I think.

Is it because it’s about barnyard animals, a rooster in particular? I don’t think so. One of my all time favorites is about rabbits (Watership Down by Richard Adams).

The Book of the Dun Cow has appeal to some, obviously. For me, something is wrong. It’s too dark, too hopeless, too distancing, too … something.

But what if the author could write that story in a way that widened its appeal without watering down its existing strengths? Is that possible? And shouldn’t an author try?

Until the perfect novel has been written, shouldn’t we authors always be striving instead of settling?

Published in: on March 10, 2010 at 12:04 pm  Comments (4)  
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