Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Venom and Song - Day 3

This is the third and final day of the CSFF Blog Tour for September. The featured novel is a joint venture of Wayne Thomas Batson and Christopher Hopper: Venom and Song, second book of The Berinfell Prophecies and sequel to Curse of the Spider King.

Beside me is a lined piece of paper torn from a spiral notebook and covered in pencil-scribbled notes, stars and exes and arrows, crossed-out deletions and crammed-in additions, ideas and thoughts for discussion during the tour. I could talk about themes or story structure or similarities between our real-world history and that of Allyra, but my brain's just not leaning in any of those directions.

(It is, however, enjoying the DVD of The Fellowship of the Ring Extended Edition, which I haven't watched in a good long while.)

Lately, I've stumbled across or been engaged in conversations about "Christian fiction": Although it is categorized by genre, how can fiction be anything but fiction? Is "Christian fiction" considered "Christian" because of its content, or because of its author? What about fiction written by Christian authors and/or with Christian themes or worldview, but published and marketed in a secular venue?

It's old news, but Christian fiction has a reputation (and, in many cases, deservedly so) for preachiness; predictability or a tendency toward the formulaic; shallow thought or forced emotion (characters not being allowed to think, emote, or react as real people might);  and poor craft. 

As another writer said recently, the Bible was the only book written at God's direction. The rest of us? We have to work at it. 

A writerly aside: I'd forgotten that Chawna Schroeder (one of our CSFF Blog Tour participants) had also discussed this topic on her blog recently -- and I'd even left a ranting comment, how's that for memory? She has some good stuff to say, so do go check it out. And please disregard my apparent loss of spelling ability in the comment!

It's an arrogant and lazy writer who thinks his or her words are perfect from the moment of inception. 

Our work should be excellent -- not just so it can be "as good as" or "better than" the work of secular authors, but because our excellence honors God. We should spur one another toward excellence, toward a bettering of our craft. In this, there is no separation of the sacred and the profane -- in the sense that the story is the sacred, and the craft is the profane -- because good craft helps us tell a better story. And good craft gives us credibility. Who cares what your message is if you're not communicating it in such a way that it will be received?

And that's another debate: In Christian fiction, which comes first -- the message or the story? I say story, because who picks up a novel expecting to read a sermon? Let any "message" be organic, a natural part of the story. Let characters be as real as possible. Let the outcome of events turn as they may. Let there be surprises and ugliness and sin and doubt and mistakes. Don't try to force everything to fit a preplanned message.

The purpose of the Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour is to promote speculative works by Christian authors, and Venom and Song is certainly that. In it, the Elves -- "the good guys" -- have a dark secret in their history, and it has a direct effect on everything that happens in the story's present.

Who among us hasn't made a mistake that changed life from that moment onward? How many of us are always selfless? Always good? Always acting for the good of others? The Elves aren't ethereal creatures of unalloyed goodness. They possess conflicting opinions, they don't have all the answers, they don't do everything right. The teenage Lords of Berinfell are learning as they go. In imperfection is room for change, for growth, essential to effective characters and, therefore, effective stories.

And mistakes leave room for redemption.

For other stops on the tour, please visit Monday's post, scroll to the end, and click on any of the names in the list there.

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


WayneThomasBatson said...

Thanks for everything this week, Brandon. Keen insights about what makes fiction Christian. Excellence would be a good place to start. I'm not there yet, but I'm learning.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Don't try to force everything to fit a preplanned message.

I'm pulling out my soapbox here, Keanan. No, I don't think anything should come across as forced—description, plot, characters, or theme. But I bristle at the idea that what an author says through a story shouldn't be preplanned.

Do we not pre-plan the foundation of a house? The layout of a painting? The pattern for an intricate weaving?

What we have to say through our stories is the most important part. If we have nothing to say, why would anyone want to read our work?

Imagine Jesus telling a parable, then when He's alone with His disciples and they ask Him the meaning of the story, He says, Oh, no meaning. I just wanted to entertain the crowd.

The key in your statement is "forced," I think. Preplanned themes should not be forced, but it is my firm belief that by pre-planning an author insures that they will not be forced.

OK, that's enough for one trip atop the soapbox. ;-)


Leighton Hajicek said...

Nice review! Venom and Song rocks!

Check out my blog ( in which I did some posts for the CSFF Blog Tour as well. :D

Anonymous said...

Sorry, "long time no visit or comment". Shame, shame, I know! :)

I liked your point about Christian because of the author or the content. I've often wondered about that.

I don't read much Christian fiction because, honestly, many times the message IS put before the story. And the quality of the story is not great. One comment mentioned Jesus' parables: I'll say that Jesus did make his stories interesting, people listened, but many took it too literally(remember how many times the disciples were asking "what was that about?" (Paraphrase, lol.) And there is still a lot of misinterpretation by readers of "Christian" works.

I think there CAN be great Christian fiction: and it's a difficult balance. The spiritual with the entertainment/the world with heaven.

Thanks for sharing, Keanan, and I agree with your thoughts!

Keanan Brand said...

Wayne -- There's a persnickety editor that lives inside my head. He wears a green visor, has a gruff voice, and never learned to play nice with others, and sometimes he will not shut up, even when I'm trying to read a book for pleasure. I don't know where he came from, because there was a time -- eons ago -- when any talk of craft or edits was anathema to me, because they "killed the creativity."

But, somewhere along the way, the curmudgeon arrived and took over the office. He keeps me on the edge, never quite comfortable, always looking for the ways I can sharpen the writing.

However, as we all know, there comes a time when we have to drop the red pencil and step away from the manuscript, or we'll edit the life right outta the story.

Keanan Brand said...

Becky -- Lately, this whole "Christian fiction" discussion keeps cropping up. It's not a new debate, and it's probably not going away, but it's here, and it's bugging the fire outta me! Especially as I'm trying to find an agent for a couple of manuscripts that a couple Christian writers think aren't "Christian enough," yet some secular readers think are too religious.

When I write a story, I very rarely know what I'm going to say -- what it's going to say. I start with an image, a "what if", a character, or a scenario, and then I just start writing. It's in the writing, in the storytelling, that the themes emerge. It's then that they start to catch my eye; when I recognize them, I can write to them, but I don't want to push and prod the plot or the characters into forced, awkward, or unrealistic situations simply so I can preach a message.

For me, the story has to feel right, feel real. And it needs to BE a story, and not just a sermon in thin disguise.

As for soapboxes, I have quite a collection, so feel free to step and rant any time!

Keanan Brand said...

Leighton -- I'll have to get over there and check out the latest. Thanks for stopping by!

Jade -- (And thank you, too, for the visit.)

I used to devour quantities of Christian fiction when I was a kid, back when I was more omnivorous than I am now, and would read anything. I do mean ANYthing, even (on rare occasions) treacly historic romances where everyone "got saved" in the end.

It was "safe" fiction, the stuff Mom didn't hassle me about.

What I would read when she wasn't looking? Westerns, fantasy, science fiction -- not all of it well-written, but often more imaginative than any of the Christian fiction on offer for kids.

I think the Berinfell series isn't necessarily "safe" -- bad things happen -- but if it had been around when I was ten, it would have been gobbled up, and I'd have been prowling the shelves, looking for more.

Just as Christian films are gaining in quality, so is Christian fiction. But -- like you -- I don't read as much of it as I would like, because the overall craft just isn't there.

Anonymous said...

I concur with your analysis of Christian fiction. There are very few Christian authors that I read. Even some of their stories leave a bit to be desired, but mostly there are gems that keep me coming back.

I personally don't read "preachy" stories. The story must be entertaining first or I won't finish it. After all, fiction is primarily for entertainment. I enjoy a good story that just so happens to have a good message.

-- Bubba

Keanan Brand said...

Hey, Bubba! Thanks for weighing in on the conversation!

Yeah, we've these discussions in the past, and I owe some of my fiction library directly to your influence -- and gift-giving!

I've been thinking lately of the little sketches I'd write for youth performances / sermon illustrations. Those are challenging, fun, and definitely overt in their message. But they're intended for a particular audience, and are meant to convey a very specific message.

They were never advertised as, say, community theater and then (surprise!) turned into a sermon after all the seats were filled and the audience was settled in, expecting an evening's entertainment.

I've never forgotten what I am and what I believe -- and in Whom I believe -- and that will come out in whatever I write, either subtly or overtly, depending on the material and the context. And I'm holding you to the task of letting me know if I ever stray into preachy territory!

Phy said...

It appears to me that we have two different methods of writing in conflict here rather than any indictment or support of message in the story, the classic Pantser vs. Outliner debate. Neither is right nor wrong, it's a preference for writing and nothing more.

I'm a total pantser, as is Robert Heinlein and Fred Pohl. K.M. Weiland is an outliner, as is Joss Whedon and Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson. I have to discover my story as I go along and Katie starts with the end in mind. Both are valid methods.

The important bit is that the story is told with some degree of craft and (knowing the audience in the room) that we reflect a Christian worldview in the execution of the creative endeavor. Whether that comes across organicly as an overflowing cup or more deliberately as part of a predetermined plot point, it's something we value in our writing.

I'll say this much for Christ's parables - we have no evidence that they were delivered with massive forethought or as a result of the Spirit giving Jesus inspiration right there on the spot. What we /do/ know is that they had an awareness of the audience to whom they were delivered and that they were sometimes oblique and sometimes as direct as a laser-guided missile.

The important thing here is to be the best artist and craftsman you can be while wrestling with who your audience is, how to craft the story, and how direct the message is. It has been said over at that Christ often buried his real intent deep in the parables, making the listeners unpack them on their own, preserving a sense of mystery, and deflecting superficially obvious preaching. If Christ can be effect telling stories in that way, so I imagine can we be as well.