If More Isn’t Better, What Is?


Last time I made a case for writers slowing down their writing rather than flooding the market with less-than-best novels. With the change of status of the e-book and the ease, as well as the lower cost, of publishing that format, authors may be tempted to increase how fast they put out books rather than to slow down. I think that would be a mistake.

Writers should continue to improve. How can they when they barely have time to get a story down and turned in on deadline, even as they put in hours promoting the previous book?

But how, exactly, can a writer improve?

Last time I mentioned that characters can improve with time. As a writer gets to know the characters, they become like real people and therefore behave on paper in realistic ways. Gone will be the lines of dialogue the author forces on them because readers need to know certain things. Instead conversation, thoughts, and actions will fit naturally because this particular character would say, think, and do these particular things.

But it’s a stretch to make characters unique. No two people are alike, and an author needs to work hard to make no two characters alike, in what they do, how they think, how they sound. In addition, no character should fit a mold. Just like an author should avoid cliched expressions, she must avoid cliched characters.

Along those lines, a writer aiming for better, not just more, should avoid cliched answers to the difficulties she puts her characters in. Finding an uncommon way of escape is a challenge on several levels. One is to find something that hasn’t been done to death already. The other is to foreshadow it properly so that the problem isn’t solved by some force or mechanism that appears conveniently at just the right moment when nobody (especially the reader) expected it or looked for it.

Besides believable plot points that are properly foreshadowed, the better plots are not convoluted. Once I had an editor call a synopsis I wrote “convoluted.” He was right. I hadn’t written the book yet and put the synopsis together based on ideas I had for the story. I knew where I wanted to go but not what all I wanted to happen on the way. I put in all the interesting things I considered. It was too much and of course as I began to develop the story, it was obvious to me which ideas didn’t fit.

Unfortunately, it seems like some books retain all the interesting ideas even if they don’t fit. Plots should not be hard to follow. They can have interesting twists, certainly, but the bottom line should be, the protagonist has an objective and a plan of action. So does the antagonist, and the two are on a collision course.

Most importantly, however, books should say something. Unless they are modeled on fables in which a stated moral is part of the story, the something a book says should be woven into the fabric through symbolism, character growth, plot developments, and resolution.

Such weaving takes time and is often a result of extensive revision.

I could go on and discuss character motivation and language and imagery and subplots and a host of other things that better stories have, but I think it’s probably time I put this particular rant back into its cage for a while. Let me end with a simple answer to the title question: If more isn’t better, what is? Creativity — and that takes time.

Fables and Fantasies – CSFF Blog Tour, The Wolf of Tebron, Day 3


I’d planned to do my typical review of this week’s CSFF feature, The Wolf of Tebron by C. S. Lakin, but some of the blog tour discussion connected to my two previous posts has persuaded me to explore the differences and similarities of two speculative genres—classic fantasy and fables.

As a reminder, back cover copy of The Wolf of Tebron invites a comparison (as did the author herself in her guest posts at Spec Faith) between C. S. (Susanne) Lakin’s work and C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. However, the genre of The Gates of Heaven series is fairy tale whereas Lewis was doing something quite different.

His work is best described as mythopoetic, or myth-making. Hence, he created a new place and populated it with mythical and make-believe characters, then asked the question, How would God show Himself in this world? The result was most naturally Aslan, king of the beasts.

This latter aspect of his story creation has been called “supposal.” Lewis differentiated this process from allegory, but clearly there are allegorical elements. Aslan’s Christ-like sacrifice is most notable.

One final point about the Narnia books: they don’t follow the broadest description of fairy tales as “narratives centered on magical tests, quests, and transformations … defined by their plots, which follow standard basic patterns.” In fact, the Narnia books all differ from one another considerably. Some may have a fairy tale motif (rescuing a prince—though most fairy tales use a princess—from enchantment, for example), but those points serve the greater Story—Aslan’s rule over what he created and his creatures’ corruption of it.

In contrast, The Wolf of Tebron does not create a tangible world but in true fairy tale fashion, takes place far, far away. In fact, the world is hard to pin down because allusions to real world nursery rhymes, music, literature, religion, and science pepper the story. But so does magic and transformation and the fantastic. So does the extreme North where the Moon lives, the East where the Sun lives, the South where the South Wind lives, and the West where the ocean is.

Without an established world, there is no creative “supposal” a la Lewis. The question, In this world how would God show Himself? is moot because the world doesn’t have a standard set of rules. The sacrificial character himself needs rescuing more than once; the sun, moon, and wind seem to be independent entities; and the mind-speaking magic seems without purpose. These kinds of unexplained elements (who is the Goose Woman; why did the Moon, who is the culprit of the story, send the protagonist to the Sun where he would find help) fit a folktale perfectly fine, but not the creation of a consistent world with a God figure such as we find in Narnia.

In reality, as I thought through the differences of the two works, I felt freed up to appreciate what The Wolf of Tebron accomplished. It took an existent fairy tale, fleshed it out, and turned it into a fable with symbolic Christian elements.

I’ve seen the word “allegory” or “allegorical” used in connection to the story, but I think those terms trip up some readers and cause them to have theological problems with the story. I’ll give an example from near the end.

[SPOILER ALERT]

In order to save the protagonist, the wolf, his faithful companion, mind-speaks that the “young human” needs to kill him—take his knife and stab him, then cut out his heart. This sacrificial act is notably different from Christ’s.

For one, the character in the book loves the wolf and doesn’t want to kill him. Christ’s killers (and yes, the picture is there that we sinners are Christ’s killers) hated Him and opposed Him and denied His authority and relationship. In addition, the wolf who then became a man, only gained a pure heart once he died. Christ, on the other hand, was sinless perfection and had a pure heart at birth, which was why He could be the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world.

You get the idea. There are significant differences that keep the wolf from being an allegorical representation of Christ. But he could certainly be a symbolic representation of Him.

If a reader expects to find allegory, the natural conclusion is that the theology of The Wolf of Tebron is skewed, at best. If, on the other hand, the reader expects to find a morality tale—a fable—then he will find a story about anger and forgiveness, despair and hope, fear and love.

From my perspective, how a reader approaches the book “[makes] all the difference.” 😀

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Published in: on January 5, 2011 at 3:32 pm  Comments (7)  
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Thoughts on the Most Popular Post


😮 Picture me surprised. The post here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction that gets the most hits—a steady number each week—is Myths and Legends, Fairy Tales and Fables … Oh, My.

When I first notice that post was receiving traffic, often from search words, I reread it to see what profundity had captured the minds of blog searchers near and far. What I discovered was … nothing profound at all. A throw-away post, I thought. Some good comments, but nothing controversial. Nothing that led me to explore the topic in more depth. In fact, the comments made me think categorizing fiction into kinds might be a waste of time.

This week I notice that this post had surpassed the previous high traffic article, so I reread it yet again, hoping this time to discover the magical element that brought readers to the topic. Nope. I still don’t see it. If anything, I ask more questions and give few answers.

The one thing that intrigues me about the post is that the definitions for the different fantasy types seem to indicate a differing purpose lurking in the minds of the authors. Was Lewis intentionally passing on lessons in the Narnia stories? Was Tolkien intentionally making a statement about the supernatural as he constructed a history of Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings? When Stephen Lawhead embellished the stories of Robin Hood in his King Raven series, was he intending to take the reader away from the old traditional stories for a particular purpose?

In all these types—fairy tales, fables, legends, myths, and add in allegories—it seems the theme is a strong thread holding the stories together. In some cases, the thread is quite plain, while in others it is more subtly woven as a highlight, though it changes the entire tapestry with its presence.

What I’m wondering now is, Are some of the current so-so fantasies missing the mark because they are missing the theme element? Just wondering.

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