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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Mount Hermon Report 2008, Part 3

It’s taken me a while to get back to the report, but that’s because there’s been so much to discuss, what with a hot blog tour, a book to review, a meme to answer.

As I remember, I left off with arriving at MH and meeting L. L. Barkat (who just so happened to be the one who tagged me with the Odd Job Meme). For the life of me, I can’t remember what I did that Thursday night. There was an early bird workshop led by Tim Riter called something like “Maximizing the Mount Hermon Experience,” but I didn’t attend.

The next day, however, I do remember. At breakfast I sat at the same table with freelance writer and conference speaker Louise M. Carey who “just happens” to be working with Wycliffe Bible Translators in Guatemala and knows some of the missionaries I worked with years ago when I did a three-year teaching stint there. How cool is that?!

Brandilyn Collins at Mount Hermon, 2008After breakfast, I went to the central lounge (Common Ground) to work on the critiques I still had to complete for my mentoring group. I scanned the crowded room (with fire in the fireplace and coffee flowing into cups) for a vacant seat. I thought to pull an unused chair against the wall or somewhere out of the way, and work off my clipboard. I approached the table where Brandilyn Collins worked and asked if the available chair was in use. The other woman at the table said something like, it was free but at that table, they were working. In other words, no chit chat. Well, that worked for me, so I plopped onto the chair and went to work right there.

Only later, when there was a break in the action, did Brandilyn graciously introduce me to the other woman—her editor, Zondervan’s Sue Brower. On top of the introduction, Brandilyn said very nice things about me and my writing. To which Sue replied, We’ll have to tell Andy about her. And then I had to say, Uh, Andy Messenheimer? He’s already rejected my proposal. Bummer!

One of the good things about being around for a while is you get to know people, but on the negative side, they all get a chance to reject your work.

It’s interesting how I look at these things now. Once, I would have considered sitting at that table with Brandilyn and Sue as a divine appointment that was opening a door for me to be published at Zondervan. I still believe it was a divine appointment, but I’m no longer presuming to know why God put those women in my path (or me in theirs). I do know I decided to attend Sue’s seminar later that day, in large part because of our conversation. And I’m glad I did. But that will have to be for another post.

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