Inside Religious Publishing
Today religious fiction is a staple in our homes, church libraries, and secular bookstores. The confusion and distrust are no longer an issue, and yet the essential elements of story remain the same.
In this chapter, I not only answer the question, “What is fiction?” I also name its necessary ingredients—principles that haven’t changed since Gilgamesh, our first written piece of ancient literature, pressed into Sumerian clay tablets around 2,300 B.C.
In old England few Christians read fiction. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe was considered a "lie" because it was "made up," and to read it, the reasoning went, was to sin. Surprisingly, a remnant of this attitude still lingers within the fundamentalist, evangelical world. Despite Christ's use of story, there remains a strong distrust and hesitancy when it comes to fiction.
At the very least there is profound confusion. Religious publishers do not understand its import and power. Readers do not understand its purpose. Writers do not understand its function. And so we have an industry that keeps dropping the ball. Yet none of us—publishers, readers, or writers—can quite give up the ball game yet. instinctively we know the power of story. Jesus certainly did. And so, despite the odds, we keep getting up to bat. The first strike against us is the religious publisher. Many see no value in story. An editor of a teen magazine made the statement that he did not accept fiction. "We are a publication," he said emphatically, "that is interested only in truth.
Publishers Often Do Not Understand What Fiction Is
I teach creative writing seminars at the University of Washington as well as Freshman Composition at Western Washington University, and before each class begins we have to define our terms. "Just what is fiction?" I ask. "And how does it differs from nonfiction? If you're like most of my students (and a certain editor from a religious teen magazine), you'll answer, "One is made up and the other is true." But nothing is further from the truth.
The truth of the matter is that fiction is truth—in a way that nonfiction can never be. Do we ever rewrite Homer or the Bronte sisters the way we do our history books? Which is true then, if what is true is changed? And what literature has been passed down through the ages if it hasn't been fiction stabbing unrelentingly at the undeniable truth of human existence? It's been myth, folklore, and fairy tale—stories and more stories from the beginning of time. Can't you still hear Shakespeare's Hamlet? "To be, or not to be—that is the question!" And what of Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer? Who among us hasn't wished to attend our own funeral? Ached to know if we'd be missed when we're gone? And can we not just taste the wicked witch's Turkish Delight in C. S. Lewis's fantasy The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? And feel the tug of disobedience and greed in our own hearts?
Let's take the Bible. Do we know the truth of God's love because of Leviticus and law or because of Exodus and Moses at the Nile? The crossing of the Red Sea? Joshua and Caleb among the giants? What of the New Testament? Do we best remember Paul's theological treatises in Romans and Hebrews or Christ's parables in the gospels?
We remember stories because they reflect the truth of our reality. They mirror back to us our lives—what we are, not what we should be. Story illuminates for us the dilemma of human existence, not necessarily the answers. It reflects the things that bind us as well as propel us, that trick as well as empower us. We pick up a book and look into its pages, and we see reflected back at us the world, human nature—and ourselves. Who do we see in Hamlet, Tom Sawyer, and selfish Edmund if it is not us? As hesitant as we might be about the value and importance of fiction, and even though we may read more nonfiction and even honor it more, what is it that we remember? Fiction every time. Because fiction is truth.
The secular world has always known the truth and power of fiction. Catherine Marshall, Eugenia Price, Madeline L'Engle, Marjorie Holmes, Walter Wangerin, Jr., these are just a few of our Christian authors who have had to take their religious fiction to secular presses—in order to be recognized, and read. Because our religious heritage has been one of publishing tracts and sermons there's been an inbred bias that not even two hundred years can erode. Exhortation, not reflection. Telling, not showing. Preaching, not exploring. These are the valued commodities in the religious marketplace. Publishers have always sold the "Sermon on the Mount" and "The Prodigal Son," and it's hard to break the swing—unless, of course, they publish "the Prodigal Son" with the "Sermon on the Mount." But to just sell the story? Without explanation? Without moralizing?
Many publishers do not understand that story speaks for itself. But then neither did the disciples. They too were always wanting explanation—much to Christ's irritation and dismay. It is not all bad news. Some publishers would like to take a swing at fiction. In a recent, almost colossal turnabout, fiction dominated the bestseller lists for 1990 and publishers are now lining up at the bat, scrambling to understand and publish fiction at is very best. Bethany House, Harvest House, Tyndale, Zondervan, HarperCollins, and Crossways—houses that in the past have approached fiction cautiously, giving those of us in the game a chance to see what we could do—are now taking us very seriously.
In the June 1991 issue of Bookstore Journal these houses all announced their feature novelists—and their intentions to foster and promote fiction in the future. Bob Hawkins, Jr., of Harvest House, says, "Fiction is definitely a growing market, and the market is going to grow in the years ahead if publishers choose the types of high-quality fiction that will keep the demand growing." Ken Peterson says that Tyndale will quadruple its production of fiction by 1993. "But," he adds, "we are saying no to lots of manuscripts. It's not easy to find really good novels."
So the publishers are lining up, ready to play ball. There is ample opportunity, but you have to be good. And that's the catch. Strike two against us is the religious reader. Because many do not understand the purpose of fiction, they've set up rigid (and oftentimes contradictory) standards and limitations—in order, I think, not to feel threatened by the lives of our characters. A few months ago a woman, incensed at my "profanity" in Sweetbriar Bride, wrote to my publisher and book club quite the letter. "The misuse of God's name," she wrote, "is atrocious! I can't let this creep into my home. I guard against this all the time!" My offense? Page 136. "God," he moaned, half praying, "What a mess. What a nightmare of a mess."
Readers Do Not Understand What Fiction Is, and so They Misread It.
This woman, representative of many readers, objected as well to my Doc Maynard because, one, she didn't understand what I was saying through him (that even non-Christians turn to God in times of trouble, albeit hesitantly) and two, she was looking at the story all wrong. Fiction is a mirror, reflecting what is, not an exhortation to ideals—as is nonfiction. Too many readers, however, simply do not understand this critical difference. They do not understand that fiction is the creation of characters, who, as Roy Carlisle of the Independent Institute, says, "encompass the full embodiment of the human experience." Including the good, the bad, and the ugly-—they, the created characters, can illuminate our strengths and weaknesses; reflect our ideals and sins.
Fiction is not a sugar-coated tract, a sermon, a ten-step how-to on the Christian lifestyle, yet many readers approach it this way and, as a result, are easily offended by a character who doesn't "live" the way they are supposed to. Like readers in Defoe's time, they read a story as if reading an essay; they interpret a character's actions and words as the author's exhortation. In short, they read fiction as if it were nonfiction and it can't be done. Oranges are not apples.
Too, readers often want illusion and not the reality that good fiction is. They want to read of sweet characters who always say sweet things and who always smile sweetly and who always do very sweet deeds. Because isn't this what we're supposed to be doing?" (Exhortation?) They do not want to read about pain and failure and conflict. Yet isn't this more accurately what we experience? (Reality?) And so this Pollyanna expectation makes it rough for the fiction writer who strives to spin truth out of the tangled threads of struggle and sin in order to demonstrate the offer of ultimate redemption. They want, as Philip Yancey, an editor of Christianity Today, says, "to hear of only the resurrection without the cross."
So we have two strikes against us if we want to write religious fiction: publishers who often do not understand the truth and power of story and readers who do not understand its purpose. We go up to bat knowing strike three and we're out. A lot of writers do strike out. Most do, in fact—because they themselves do not understand the function of fiction. The bulk of this chapter, then, is not on how to convince publishers to buy our fiction (because many now will if we're good enough), or on how to educate readers to better understand what fiction is (because they will eventually catch on), but on how to write fiction so we can at least get to first base. After all, there is really nothing we can do about the ball game until we step up to bat. And then, no matter how bleak, the game can still be ours because when all is said and done, the game—and how it is played—is really up to us.
Writers Do Not Understand The Function of Fiction
UNDERSTANDING THE BALL FIELD / Key Elements of Fiction
Just as there are four bases on the old ball diamond, so are there four key elements when it come to fiction: conflict, crisis, climax, and resolution. Without these four elements there is no story. Why? Because fiction, remember, mirrors our reality. And who among us does not currently have a problem? (Maybe two?) And are these problems going to get worse before they get better? You bet. But will they still be problems next year? Probably not. M. Scott Peck says in his The Road Less Traveled that "life is difficult." A bumper sticker says it more bluntly: Life's A Bitch, Then You Die. Conflict, crisis, climax, and resolution---these have been the stuff of life ever since the Fall, and if we're going to write fiction, we have to write of all four.
1. Getting To First Base:
Lee Roddy, author of The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams, as well as the TV series and author of over seventy-five other novels, teaches: "People come to see the fight, not the arena." Yet most beginning writers make this fatal mistake. They spend page after page describing the arena before ever getting to the conflict. Sometimes they never get to it. All sunshine, no clouds. They slide into home plate without ever getting their knees skinned, hugging bases on a few close calls. The umpire blows his whistle and the manuscript come back. . ."REJECTED!"
When I was writing Sweetbriar in 1980, I took a workshop from Lee. He had us read aloud the first one hundred words of our novels, and after I'd finished my golden prose he crossed his arms and stared at me for ten long seconds. Finally he said, "Pretty words, Brenda. But they don't say a thing. Cut them."
In the end I cut not only those first one hundred words, but seven whole chapters. I'd spent nearly a hundred pages describing scene after scene after scene of preparations for going West. How to cure hams, how many pounds of flour a family of four would need, how to splice hemp and pack eggs, what to do if an axle broke, ad nauseam. Not until chapter eight did the people finally get underway---and this is where the story begins. This is where the conflict entered. Louisa Boren, leaving her dearest friend to tramp two thousand miles into the the unknown, and for what reason? Because David Denny was going, that's why. David Denny who didn't even know she existed---or at least she didn't think he did.
David Lambert, editor at Zondervan, says that when we write fiction we must "step into lives already full." If a couple is arguing we dare not describe the room, the clothing, what they look like, the incidents that led up to the fight, but we must begin when the neighbor lifts his hand to knock on the front door---in the middle of the quarrel. We must begin when Louisa's heart breaks.
2. Stealing Second:
Lee Roddy puts it succinctly for us: "Put the antagonist and the protagonist up front. Let the black hat win all the battles but let the white hat win the war."
There's got to be a skirmish on second base, and in C. S. Lewis's Narnia series there always is. In Narnia, the battles are always won by the wrong side, but Aslan's team, in every book, always wins the war. Because isn't this the way it is?
Things do get worse before they get better, and children, skipping rope on the school playground at recess, know this. "Same song, second verse, a little bit louder and whole lot worse!" and the rope swings faster and faster and faster, lickety split, until someone's legs get slapped with a sting.
Look at the tension and trouble in your own life. The alarm doesn't go off. Your daughter is late. She needs a ride to school, but you've got to get a manuscript out in today's mail. But if you skip breakfast and the morning cup of coffee, you can still get it done. But wait! Your son needs $3.00 for his school picture today, and you forgot to go to the bank yesterday. Does anybody around here have $3.00 cash? No, of course not. So, after you take your daughter to school, you run by the bank, but the bank, of course, isn't open until ten and, in your hurry to get of the parking lot and over to the Safeway open twenty-four hours a day (scolding yourself for being an idiot), you knock down the drive-in teller sign. No problem, just put it into reverse, pick up the sign, check out the dent in your car, pop back in, unthinkingly put it into reverse again, and slam right smack dab into the front end of another idiot who hasn't had his morning cup of coffee either and who also forgot that the bank doesn't open until ten. But it doesn't end there, does it? No, no, no. You're in such a hurry by now that you zip out of the parking lot, forgetting that it's a one-way street.
Don't we do this all the time? Don't we always go from bad to worse? As if fate propels us forward, catapulting us into disaster? Sometimes we can even see it coming but are somehow powerless to steer clear. Doesn't even the flu put us to bed before letting us out the door?
Crisis is the escalation of conflict. Each event pushes the next until disaster can't help but occur. And if fiction is to mirror reality, conflict has to get bigger and bigger and worse and worse until, like tight balloon—
3. Sliding Into Third:
CLIMAX --it pops!
This when Pudge the Potato, who's been gobbling up one family member after another in Walter Wangerin'sThistle, finally explodes and spews mashed potatoes everywhere. Conflict and crisis must explode---and spew. In fiction you must reach a point where all is lost, "when it cannot get any worse. In romance this is when the guy and the girl will never get back together again. In Jerry Jenkins' Margo Mystery series this is when the hoodlum is tracking the girl, the moon slides behind a cloud, the car won't start---and the gun isn't in the glove compartment! It's the loss of hope, the face of despair. It's the cross.
Conflict, crisis, and climax. This may be the stuff of life, we say, but do we have to write of such things? Is there not enough pain and misery without our adding to it? Why not write of Pooh and PIglet and picnics with Roo? Because we, as human beings, resist making choices until we hurt bad enough and this is the very essence and function of fiction---choice. The Garden of Eden, and the snake.
John Westfall is the pastor of adult ministries at University Presbyterian Church in Seattle, and when single parents come into his office lost and overwhelmed by the conflicts of life, he always asks: "What are you going to do about?" If they answer "I don't know," he tells them, "Come back when you're hurting bad enough to decide."
The truth of the matter is that we'd really rather not decide---because choice involves risk. Given to us in the Garden of Eden, a gift not given to animals, choice makes us responsible for our lives. And so we resist, even when it generates further conflict, because if we start making choices, then we can no longer blame anyone else for our pain. And it's much easier to "endure" than to do the "wrong" thing; there is something so much more "saintly" about it. And if ever fiction reflects reality, it shimmers here with blinding light: conflict and crisis must accelerate to a climactic point, forcing characters to choose--right or wrong, good or bad, wise or foolish---because this very act of choice, this gift of God, is the only defense we have against the enemy philosophy that has dictated ever since the Fall: Life's a Bitch, Then You Die. The right choice releases us from sin and pain.
The heroine must choose bravery. The hero must choose to forgive. Margot must confront the hoodlum. Even Pooh is not without his troubles. He must choose to quit eating honey if ever he is to get through Rabbit's door. And as fiction writers we have to throw our characters into conflict--and if they do nothing we have to pitch them headlong into crisis and, if they still do nothing, drive them to a point of climax where they see no hope, find no salvation, discover there is no way out. They have to hug third base while we knock them upside the head with raw, ugly, brutal pain. And fear. And doubt. And despair. And all the debilitating human emotions we feel. Because it is this sort of dilemma that forces choice--and resolution In the end we're not writing of conflict and pain at all. We are writing of resolution in a fallen world.
4. Crossing Home Plate:
Conflict exists, but there is always resolution on some level, and this tumbling of conflict and resolution, occurring simultaneously and on various levels, moves us through life, and so we make choices, reaping the rewards or paying the penalties, and growing stronger in the midst of peril. It is when we live in a world of conflict without resolution, never making choices, that we wind up neurotic, in mental instructions, and eventually committing suicide. Too much, too fast, too hard, and it will drive the sanest of sane over the edge. We must have resolution---sooner or later---but have it we must or we will lose our minds, and this is why fiction carries such import.
At this point we might well ask ourselves why so much conflict in the first place? Why so much suffering? Why the pain that makes resolution even necessary?
Edith Schaeffer wrote a book called Affliction. Philip Yancey wrote a book called Where is God When It Hurts? Harold S. Kushner wrote the best-seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People. C. S. Lewis wrote The Problem of Pain. Nonfiction abounds with the "why's" of suffering. But fiction never does. Fiction, like John Westfall, asks not why but what. What are you going to do about it?
Life is difficult. Or, as another bumper sticker puts it, "Megashit Happens." And so to ask why is useless. It got Job no where in hurry, and as fiction writers we recognize this. It is not our function to analyze for our readers the whys of conflict---leave that to nonfiction writers. Rather, we accept the fact that conflict, crisis, and climax are inevitable, and we go on to write of the resolution. No one wins until we reach base four---home plate.
The first thing to remember when it comes to resolution is that it can only come about through choice. The second thing to remember is that choice must be made by the individual caught within the conflict. No one in the bleachers can move him home---in fiction, no fairy godmothers or, in religious writing, not even God himself. No outside force swooping down and magically eliminating the trouble. Why? Because this doesn't reflect reality. God never removes us from pain. A Jewish convert once said, "I knew that by embracing the God of Jacob, Isaac, and Joseph, I was embracing risk on two levels. One, I was stepping into pain as a Jew and two, I understood that God would never rescue me." As contemporary Christians we've lost lost of this. God does not rescue us from pain. We are called to live through our pain by making moral choices.
For example, David Denny, the founder of Seattle and the secondary hero of my Seattle Sweetbriar series, had to come to terms with his accelerating fear. There was nothing he could do about the dangers surrounding early Seattle; this was not something in his control just as there are many thing in life beyond our own control. But he, like us, could choose to do some thing about it. He could, if he wanted to, choose to live a normal life despite his fear. But being male and macho, it was hard to get him to this point. He didn't even know he was afraid (although he acted on his fear) and I (like God, at times, must do to us) had to drive him into a corner of absolute despair so that the could no longer deny his conflict. He had to face the fact that he was afraid.
It wasn't until he was emotionally thrown against the wall and facing the fact that yes, Louisa might die---the very worst of his fears---that he was finally able to admit that, yes, he was running scared, and that it was up to him to do something about it. David, being the hero that he was, chose to embrace his fear and take Louisa with all its impending risk back to the isolated claim where she longed to be. And by doing so, he demonstrated---to himself as well as the reader---resolution. No, the dangers did not cease, but his fear did---by facing his fear and in the process of naming it, he found his peace, the "peace that passes all understanding," and the conflict was resolved.
But does this mean your character can never have help in the face of conflict? Obviously not, because we all have help from time to time and fiction mirrors reality. None of us ever slugs it out alone. But if we look back and analyze some past resolution in our lives, we'll find that while we may not have been directly responsible for the conflict, we were, from earlier choices, responsible for facilitating the resolution. In Sweetbriar Spring Louisa made the choice early in the winter of 1854 to befriend the city's crazy man when no one else would. So when a fir tree falls on top of Mrs. Holgate's roof, crushing the cabin and Louisa's four-month-old baby asleep on the bed, it was the crazy man who effected the resolution to the immediate conflict---but it was really Louisa's earlier love and kindness that motivated him to do it. It was really Louisa, by her choices, who precipitated the resolution, and in that sense it was she who resolved her own difficulty.
This is fiction throwing itself across home plate.
Picking Up The Ball
In baseball attention is focused on the ball, and, in fiction, it's focused on character. Character "is the very life of fiction" says John Gardner, and we don't read for conflict as much as we do for the characters involved. Why? Because, as the characters work out their conflict, making choices and reaping the rewards or paying the penalties, readers catch a glimpse of themselves and are affirmed, challenged, cautioned, or warned.
"Setting," says Gardner, "exists so that the character has some place to stand, something that can help define him....Plot exists so the character can discover for himself (and in the process reveal to the reader what he, the character is really like....Theme exists only to make the character stand up and be somebody. Characterization is the ball game. You can fail at technique, plotting, or any other aspect of writing, but if you have strong characters, if you hang onto the ball your story will survive.
Frank Peretti? Why is he such a success with This Present Darkness? Because he's captured the imagination of the reader with character. He hauls the reader with him, turning pages around that battleground of a ball diamond, and he demonstrates—through his characters—choice...and redemption. What is going to happen next? the reader asks, focused on Hank. Will he make all the right choices? Or will he, like me, be tempted to slip up?
The opposite is true as well. All the strength of plot and technique is of no avail if you drop the ball and let your characters walk. Who wants to read a whole book about grotesque, ugly little hobgoblins anyway, if that is all it is? Just a bunch of evil spirits hovering around without contest? Without Hank, without strong character, there's not much excitement at the old ball game, and readers will put the book down and go on home.
So how do we develop strong, believable characters that will take a swing at life and keep a reader interested? How do we take a name on a page and make it man?a woman? Prop them up and send them careening around those bases of conflict, crisis, climax, and resolution! Making choices that snatch a reader, sitting him up to think!
Pitchers spend hours perfecting their pitch, getting to know the swing of their arm, the weight of the ball. Batters likewise spend hours getting to know the strength of their delivery, and the curve and spin of the approaching ball. So too, characterization comes about by spending hours upon hours with our characters and getting to know them very very well. We get to know what they eat—and how they sound when they eat it. Whether or not they sing in the shower. How they look in the morning when they roll out of bed. Do they burp when they're tired? We discover their favorite color and song, their ambitions and failures. Their dreams, their fears, their weaknesses, their triumphs. We learn their every secret.
Dr. R.D. Brown, award-winning mystery writer and professor at Western Washington University, suggests to his students that they write biographies as a way of learning all about their characters. "Just start writing down everything you know," he says. "The more you write, the more you learn." So Johnny was abandoned as a five-year-old in the mall? Good! We need to know that; it'll affect what he does on page 186.
Carole Gift Page, author of over thirty novels, suggests going through magazines to find out what your characters look like. You like Paul Newman's eyes? Cut them out. Tom Selleck's shoulders? Cut them out. Bruce Springsteen's chin? Cut it out. Past the composite together and stick it up over your typewriter so that your macho hero can stare dreamily at you while you put him through his paces on paper.
Too, there are various characterization charts available to help us get to know our character as well, and the one I find most helpful is Colleen Reece's, published by Writers Digest. After answering her thirty-seven questions you can't help but know your characters very, very well. What are your characters' main problems? How will they get worse? Who are their friends? Their enemies? When were they born? Where did they live? How did they die? What were their worst experiences? Their best? How do they perceive themselves? How do others perceive them? If you have a heroine who sees herself as incompetent and insecure but a world who sees her as assertive and capable, don't you think this is going to affect her decision whether to go for home plate or ride it out safe at third?
After I read ten years' of David Denny's diaries and filling out Colleen's characterization chart, David Denny graduated from what Colleen calls "just a pile of words." Something magic happened: I fell in love. I loved what David stood for. I loved how he treated his wife. I loved how he admired and respected the Natives. I loved how he, at sixty-one years of age, sacrificed his three million dollars to keep one hundred men working as long as could in the Panic of 1893. That love took him from being just a name on a page to being a real live hero.
In the Velveteen Rabbit the nursery animals become real when they are loved. And once we get to know our characters, we do fall in love. And this translates itself onto the page. Our characters become, magically enough, very real indeed.
But what of the antagonist? you might well ask. Are we to hate them with just as much intensity? With just as much passion? Does the Velveteen Rabbit principle work in reverse? That we hate our enemies so well they become real? I don't think so. Hatred never makes anyone real, and if it doesn't work in real life, how can it work in fiction, which mirrors reality? Hatred reduces people to two dimensions, a static construct, Saturday-morning cartoons. All fall flat. So how do we then create strong, believable enemies? Because to be sure, in every work of fiction there is an enemy just as in every ball game there are nine other guys out there whose sole purpose is to wipe you out.
We have to become like God. To make the antagonist real and well-rounded we have to rise above our human, petty judgments and limitations—and love unconditionally everyone in our books. This means we have to love each and every character, good and bad, and come to understand why each character does what he does, or is the way he is And is this not just what God does? And are we not, as authors, the creator of our characters as God is the creator of us? And so as "God," we have to love our enemies, because this is the only way we'll ever be able to see them as being more than just two-dimensional.
Charles Johnson at the University of Washington, in speaking of characters, says we must "temper those we love with frailty" and "temper those we hate with nobility." The Apostle Paul might add, "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought." (Rom. 12:3)
Conflict, crisis, climax, and resolution, played out by strong, believable characters. This is what story is all about, whether it's religious fiction or not. And so we sit on the edge of our seats watching the game, watching the ball whiz through the air. Fly. Foul. Fumble. Two between second and third! The bases are loaded! Casey's up to bat! Wait! It's our turn!
HOME RUN: We Can Score! It's not the 1600s anymore and we've all read Robinson Crusoe. Harvest House, Bethany House, and Crossways are all publishing fiction now. There are at least 2 million fans of This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness. We can score! And if we're lucky (for yes, much of it does revolve on luck), we might even hit home run. Frank Peretti did. Twice!
Feel free to contact me. I'd love to hear from you.