Category Archives: Fiction

Paper Mountains

I wrote this essay a few years ago for a contest. The entry didn’t win, but it still expresses my thoughts:

Paper Mountains

I believe many things, but what I am seeing clearer each year is this: life is too short to be blunted by the notion that what is difficult should not be done; that only what is easy should be attempted; that even noble ends, if they cannot be achieved instantly or with minimal discomfort, must be set aside and replaced by what requires little sweat, little patience, little sacrifice of any kind.

I am a writer. My publishing accomplishments are few: essays, articles, short stories, poems. However, I want to be a novelist, and to that end I put one word at a time on paper until I have a sentence, a paragraph, a page, a chapter, a manuscript. Some of my fellow writers tell me I am creating stories no one wants to read. I am doing what cannot be done.

But how does anyone know what the end will be? I am still climbing the mountain, and have not yet seen the view from the top. If others cannot see the mountain, is the mountain no longer there? Because others are weary, must I be content to sit beside them? If they seek another way, must I go with them? Must I convince myself—as some have—that half a journey is the entire trip?

Life so rarely happens as we would wish it. My teachers and friends were convinced that I would publish my first novel by age sixteen. That might have made me a novelty—no pun intended—but it might also have made a shallow book.

Now more than twice sixteen, I still have moments of doubt, of youthful uncertainty that anything I write is worth reading. Greater than my insecurity, however, is the knowledge that what makes me a writer is not measured by how I compare to others or how much money I make or how many people know my name, but by the fiery words that blister my brain and boil my dreams until the only way to cool my burning fingertips is to write. I am a writer because not writing is not an option.

Artists draw simulations of life. Photographers capture time. Sculptors push clay into action. Writers create movies for the mind.

The characters that people my thoughts are alive and very real, but they will remain in my imagination—unseen, unheard, unread—until I do the hard work and mold imagination into words on a page.

So the journey will pass—one word at a time, one page at a time—until the day I stand on top of the mountain and see that it is made of paper: reams and reams of it covered with words; wads of it tossed in to wastebaskets; some of it retrieved and smoothed out again and found to be not so bad after all.

This I believe: my greatest challenge is my greatest joy, and I would not have it otherwise.

c. EE

Beginning the NaNo Frenzy

Deep in the maelstrom of NaNoWriMo, there pulses a light — many lights — the arcing neurons of my brain as they create utter nonsense that will, perhaps, be crafted into something sensical after November ends.

I’m already one day behind in the daily word count, but that dragon shall be slain as soon as I can figure out how to shoot this ray gun.

Oops! Mixing genres. Ah, well. That’s the hazard and the joy of NaNo.

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For those readers who enjoy science fiction, specifically the sub-genre “space opera”, there’s a serial being posted every Saturday over at Adventures in Fiction blog. Keanan Brand’s series was being published in Ray Gun Revival; however, the magazine is on hiatus, so he went back to the beginning, and is posting the original episodes while writing new material to finish the series.

If someone was a reader of the series over at RGR, and now wonders at the unexpected titles or short lengths of the episodes, that’s because he’s breaking down the originals into smaller, more blog-friendly pieces.

Obtain a current list of episodes by clicking here. Reading is free, so go over and enjoy!

Raising the Bar: Does Your Writing Sink or Soar?

Think your editor is unreasonable and demanding?

Think he hates you, your writing, every breath you take, and probably your grandmother, too?

Consider the situation from his point of view, and ask yourself, “Why should my work be read by the world?”

To help gain perspective, read this post over at Keanan Brand’s Adventures in Fiction blog: “The High Cost of Too Nice: An Editor’s Rant“.

As I see it, an editor’s job is not only to encourage writers, but to challenge them, to draw from them better and better work. It it isn’t to be so “nice” that they don’t feel the sting of failure, or that they never confront reality: “You’re good, kid, but you’re not there yet. Do it over.”

The cost of “too nice” is lazy, naive, or ill-equipped writers, as well as disappointed, annoyed readers whose online and word-of-mouth reviews will cost book sales. More importantly, readers will have little or no respect for authors who produce below-the-bar work.

And what of the publisher’s reputation? Or the editor’s?

Agree or disagree? Have a rant of your own? Post it here, or over at Keanan’s blog, and let the conversation commence!

Expectations

Happens all the time: I expect one thing but get another.

I like simple things. Direct things. Pretty’s all right, too, but that’s subjective and can be a trap.

at the Crescent, 2011

The fireplace pictured here is, in reality, simple: a mass of bricks laid out in a plain pattern intended for functionality rather than form. But even functionality is questionable, because the heat from the fire doesn’t translate into the room. The friendly flames lead me to expect warmth, but, in the end, deliver only cheery light.

After the fireplace was built, ornate overlays were added, drawing the eye away from the original stolid, mundane appearance. It’s trying to be more than it is.

An aside: The circular decoration conjures the image of a pipe-smoking hobbit with his feet propped near the fire.

Ever read a book that’s trying to be more than it is? As if the author thinks he can distract us with the pretty-pretty lights so we’ll be too dazzled to realize how shallow it is?

I’ve watched movies like that — many in the superhero vein, but many based on bestselling or classic literature, as well — and left the theater with a sense of disappointment that I might not even be able to articulate in that moment. Hope had been deflated by something I could not quite name until later, when the dazzle had dimmed and reality could shine a sharper light.

Under a pseudonym, I write sprawling fantasy with deep history and mysterious characters. One thing that’s helped me create the world is to simplify the language in which it’s presented. The original version is heavy with complicated sentences and old-time wording. Now, drafts and drafts later, and with the second book almost complete, some of that remains, but more as flavor than as the whole meal. Readers of the early drafts had difficulty wading through all the verbiage to get to the story. They expected a compelling tale but encountered a murky mess.

I was so enamored of the trappings that I forgot to tell a story readers could understand. I forgot to make it simple.

There are books known for their parts: evocative settings, witty dialogue, realistic characters, exquisite detail, elegant turns of phrase. Some are known for their provocative subject matter, grand themes, epic scenes.

Done well, such books can envelope readers in a rich world of imagination, one which those readers are reluctant to leave.

But is there a quiet, simple book that speaks more than its gaudier neighbors on the shelf? Why?

When Your Writing Isn’t Loved

What do we do when our work is denigrated in some way?

Do we believe enough in our own skill, in our own stories, to keep writing despite our detractors?

Recently, someone asked an editor I know to review his book which is slated for publication by the end of this year. Here’s their e-mail exchange, edited for brevity and to keep the conversation on-point:

Editor: “Gotta be honest: I’m having a hard time coming up with diplomatic feedback at this point, so I’m just going to be straight-up. As much as I was intrigued by the premise of the book, I don’t believe the novel itself is living up to its potential…Sorry to be so negative. I really want to like this book, but I can’t finish it. The reader side of me is disappointed, but the editor side is in agony.”

Author: “I apreciate your honesty. That is what I wanted…You are the first to give a completely negative or even mostly negative review. I asked for brutal honesty and that is what I am getting…I believe what you have said, yet it does not surprise me that Im still getting positive reviews. There are plenty of best selling authors who speaking from a literary point of view should not have passed 10th grade English. If my novel sells well I will likely fall into that category…

“The script writer for the TV show Grimm is one of the 12 reviewing the novel…I sent the novel off to alot of people before the publisher ever saw it including the guy who wrote all of the dialogue for the games: Middle Earth1, Middle Earth 2, and  Shadows of Mordor. He loved it and so did the other people. I would not have let it get this far if I had been told anything like this by any of the dozens of people who have already read it. I am sorry that you did not enjoy it.”

Editor: “I have no illusions about you being happy with my response…and I understand that it’s late in the process for any revisions to be made. I’m glad that you’ve received so many positive reviews. That’s always encouraging…

“Like you, I have no formal training. All mine is the result of simply being a writer for over thirty years. Despite other reviewers’ doctorates, television experience, video game expertise, etcetera, I have nearly two decades as an editor in this field, and can only speak as I find.

“I wish you well in your endeavors.”

What would you do if you were the author in this situation? Would you harbor resentment to the editor? Blow him off and listen only to the positive reviews? Or would you halt the presses and look once more at the manuscript?

Until last year, I belonged for several years to a small, productive writers group. We met more regularly than some of us wrote, but we were all pretty prolific, considering life intrusions and such.

A fellow writer almost physically flinched whenever it was my turn for the group to read/critique my pages. While praising me afterward, or outside of the critique session, this person squirmed in her chair, sighed loudly, and repeatedly declared, “But I don’t understand.”

It’s as if a mental roadblock was instantly constructed, and nothing I wrote would ever be clear enough for this particular reader.

Of course, in the interest of clarity and of doing my job as a storyteller, I would go back and check my sentence structure, setting, character details, dialogue, etcetera.

Turns out, it wasn’t the writing, but the genre, to which she objected.

Nothing fantasy or science fiction-y would ever penetrate her roadblock. This person was not interested and therefore refused to open the mind wide enough to allow for a story set anywhere but in the solid present. No other worlds. Just this one.

I could not trust that writer with my work. It would not receive proper criticism.

A friend has very nicely told me on a few occasions that many of my ideas have already been done. That’s almost more deflating than all the “I don’t understand” writer’s wincing and fidgeting! After all, when one’s imagination seems no more creative or original than coming up with stuff that’s already been done, what is left to the writer but the underlying, unspoken understanding that perhaps it’s best if he just stops writing, especially if he can’t contribute something new.

Another writer once told me this:

“I read somewhere that there only like 32 stories in the world and that all stories are simply the individual author’s spin on those 32 stories…I also read that Shakespeare never wrote an original story, that all his plays were based on pre-existing tales.

Truth is, it’s all been done. But the way you do it will be different than anyone else. And better than most.”

vck

What would you do? Would you keep writing?

Would you loudly defend your work? Or would you quietly close your notebook and put away your pen, and look around for some other outlet for your creativity?

My newest endeavors have yet to be seen by eyes other than mine; I learned long ago that a story shown too soon may succumb to exposure and die before being truly born. I may talk about it a little, but it will not be trotted out before the world until the story is able to stand on its own feet and face the critics with me.

Note for Women Writers Creating Male Characters

Early in 2011, while in my old truck and heading home from work, I was listening to David Jeremiah on the radio. He was conducting a study series on the Song of Solomon, and listed four things husbands need from wives:

1) cheerleading

2) companionship

3) comfort

4) a confidante

c. Keanan Brand

I’m not married now, nor have I ever been, but knowing what I do of men (my dad, brother, colleagues, friends), that struck me as a logical list, not just for understanding relationships but also for writing believable characters.

Can’t tell you how many times I’ve read “male” characters who behaved and spoke almost identically as their female counterparts. Almost all those men were written by women.

Note to my gender mates who also happen to write fiction: Men ain’t the same as women.

Pretty basic.

They don’t think the same, emote the same, behave the same, communicate the same. They may have the same

c. Keanan Brand

emotions, desires, and ideas, but may express them differently, or may take different paths to arrive at similar conclusions.

When in doubt, ask male friends or family members to read your work and allow them to give honest feedback. (My brother is one of my beta readers, and he tells the unvarnished truth.)

By considering your characters’ differences, you’ll make them more believable. You’ll know their goals or their logic, which will in turn lead to interesting tension, conflict, unexpected story events. Characters will start surprising you. As a result, your writing will improve, and your readers will thank you.

Respect Your Audience

Go to any writers conference or seminar, and you’ll likely hear someone rhapsodize or rant about the relationship between an author and his editor: it’s a team, a marriage, a buddy film; it’s tug-of-war, dysfunctional, hell.

Once upon a time, I was part of the head-in-the-clouds, creative masses who float along on a fog of self-important naivete, thinking their words are sacred and immutable. Editing would somehow besmirch the purity of imagination and kill the muse.

So what if a writer had difficulty spelling, remembering the rules of grammar, or constructing cohesive paragraphs? As long as he could tell a compelling story, what was the problem? A good editor could fix all the small stuff.

But then, after resisting advice — those other writers just didn’t “get” me or my work, or those editors were trying to make over my manuscripts into soulless wastes of paper — I lost a series of contests, experienced unexpected rejections.

And then, as a reader, I was assaulted with a succession of poorly-proofed or poorly-edited novels — the literary version of a 2×4 upside the head — and I realized the value of craft over “pure creativity”.

In other words, I entered the real world.

Many books with stellar jacket copy don’t deliver the goods. I’ve been sucked into the vortex too many times to buy a volume without first reading several pages. After many years as an editor, any residual trust is gone. Used to be, if a book was published, the reader could expect that the text be error-free, at least, even if the plot was full of holes. Now, with the many desktop publishing programs available, and myriad electronic and self-published books flooding the market, the amount of error-filled and poorly-written material has greatly increased. (To find well-reviewed, recently self-published books, read this list.)

I’m not saying that traditional big-city publishing houses are the answer for writers seeking an outlet for their work. Independent presses and self-publishing are both excellent for authors desiring a measure of autonomy. Many classic or famous works of literature were self-published. (In your childhood, did you enjoy the Peter Rabbit stories by Beatrix Potter? The yarns of Mark Twain or adventure tales of Rudyard Kipling?)

I am saying that, in addition to telling great stories, writers need to study their craft and polish their editing skills. And, if editing is not a strength, hire an independent editor. Please. Hire an editor.

Or, if your manuscript is under contract with a publisher, don’t fight the editor assigned to you. Yes, there are times when a writer must defend his work against those who would mangle and deform it, but those instances are rare. Most editors want your work to succeed. Consider what they say. Look at your work objectively. Realize that the manuscript is malleable. It can be changed, often for the better.

Realize, too, that significant re-writing is in store. An editor may request additional scenes, additional research, stronger passages. However, the effort and polish conducted on the front end of the publishing process will not only yield better sales but a better reputation for you, the author.

Note from an avid reader (my mother) who would like writers to know the following:

I’m amazed by the number of college graduates and twenty-somethings that still don’t understand common language. Someone recently asked me what agony meant, and someone else didn’t recognize iniquity. As writers, know your verbiage and know your audience.

Don’t dumb it down to where we’ll say, “Duh! Of course! Anyone with common sense would know that!” or use such specific jargon that only those in high academia would know what you’re talking about. Just use everyday language, if that’s what the material warrants.

There is one author I will never read because she demeans her characters and thereby demeans her audience. Respect your characters. Another author I won’t read inserts page after page of inconsequential garbage — characters’ soliloquies — that does not move the story along. I would not read them, nor recommend them to others.

Word of mouth is still the best marketing tool there is. Respect your readers by producing quality work, and you’ll never lack an audience.

Taking Issue: A Lesser Writer?

The following quote is from today’s issue of Shelf Awareness, a daily e-digest regarding all things book:

The People of Forever Are Not Afraid: A Novel by Shani Boianjiu (Hogarth, $24, 9780307955951). “An utterly explosive debut, this novel in stories follows three young women who serve in the Israeli army, and it is not for the faint of heart. Boianjiu is not interested in preaching politics or rehashing battle scenes as a lesser writer might; she sticks to her characters, tracing their often uncertain progress toward adulthood. There are no pat endings here. The army, compulsory to Israeli citizens, is not, after all, some summer camp. No matter how you feel about the conflicts that Boianjiu describes, you will be riveted by her fresh perspective on them.” –Danielle DuBois Diamond, Brazos Bookstore, Houston, Tex.

What struck me, aside from the intriguing summary of the book, was the reviewer’s statement about “a lesser writer”.

It happens all the time: Given the same set of words in the same language, people often say — and mean — very different things. What the reviewer intended by “a lesser writer” might not be what I interpreted when I read it. However, I cannot read the reviewer’s intentions, only my reception of those words.

Here’s what they say to me: If one writes battle scenes or promotes an agenda, one is not a good writer.

I am all for leaving agendas at home and telling good stories instead. That’s not what we get, however, because we writers are human, and what we think, feel, believe bleeds into our work. That’s true of everyone, not just writers. Our actions speak what our mouths may not.

One writer might present his agenda in clumsy, heavy-handed verbiage, while another might be more subtle about it, but the “preaching politics” happens all the time, and much as I might disagree with much of those views, I have to give credit to good writing where I find it. Sometimes, that writing belongs to someone whose politics are entangled in a story I find intriguing. A lesser writer with opposing views will not keep me interested in his story, but a good writer may.

As for the other charge — that of writing battle scenes — I must vehemently disagree. Hand-to-hand combat, a sprawling battle , every kind of fight, is a challenge to write well. The author must keep the reader’s interest, must keep the scenes real, and yet not let the action become too play-by-play so that the reader’s eyes glaze over and his mind numbs. Excellent writing is required.

So, I am left to interpret the reviewer’s words as her personal preference. She simply does not wish to read about battles and politics. A preference, however, is not a fact. Therefore, her “lesser writers” may in fact have great skill, and tell fascinating stories. They should continue to do so.

Secrets, a review

I hadn’t planned on reading a romance novel this past weekend — I was feeling more of a science fiction vibe — but there are several historicals and modern romances in the stack of stuff I’ve promised to read and review, and Secrets has an interesting premise, so I dove right in.

And am I glad I did. Before this book, I’d never read anything by Kristen Heitzmann, but I certainly will in the future.

Excerpted from the book’s page on the Bethany House website:

The old villa needed what Rese Barrett could do as well as any man on the crew. Trained by the best, she had honed her skills with a passion for quality, an eye for detail, and no room for compromise. Renovation was her joy–taking something old and making it new without changing the heart if it. But this time the inn she restored was hers, and this time she worked alone….

Chef, musician, and spellbinder, Lance talked his way into her plans before she’d even made them and had Rese telling secrets she’d never before revealed.  He spoke of faith as if he could touch it, but how much more was left unsaid?

My daddy is a carpenter, and my brother and I worked for him at various times in our childhood and young adult years, doing anything from cleaning up nails and sawdust on new construction sites to painting the walls of historic homes, so I appreciated the renovation and woodworking aspects of this story. I could well identify with this passage from chapter two:

The whine grew to a pained wail that set her teeth on edge in a way it never had before. It passed with a breathy whiff of new maple, mingling brazenly with musty damp and age. Rese breathed the scent that had filled her lungs more comfortably than the purest air. She let go the trigger on the miter saw and examined the fresh cut on the section of molding, then approved it with her fingertips.

Maple, oak, and cherry had been her companions as long as she could remember. The plane had molded her palm; the chisel had developed her eye and fingers. She knew her way around any power tool on the market, had shot nails, routered trim, sanded and carved and finished every wood worth using. She’d also laid pipe and run wires, though it didn’t compare to working the wood. Nothing did.

Heitzmann, Kristen (2004-09-01). Secrets (The Michelli Family Series Book #1) (pp. 17-18). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.

It was even more interesting that the female lead is the carpenter, and the male lead is the cook, a nice juxtaposition of roles that fits well with the characters’ personalities. I enjoyed a few giggles at his frustration over her lack of reaction to his excellent cooking. There’s also a spritely elderly neighbor, Evvy, who gains amusement by watching the young folks next door work out their differences and solve the mysteries of their pasts even as they bring two old structures back to life.

They were no longer in sight, but she stood at the window drawing the inch of fresh air in with small, pathetic breaths. She still imagined herself a robust, mite-sized dynamo, in spite of the cane, the aches, the time it took to do any small thing. Young at heart was a cliché, and Lord knew, her heart was as old as the rest of her. Youth, however, was a matter of perspective.

It might truly be wasted on the young, as the saying went, who had too little experience to see clearly. Take the angst-ridden pair next door. Without perspective, it was easy to squabble over little things. All that energy, and so little temperance. Evvy chuckled. That was what made them so much fun.

Heitzmann, Kristen (2004-09-01). Secrets (The Michelli Family Series Book #1) (p. 52). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.

I enjoyed this many-layered novel peopled by interesting, believable characters. Lance’s and Evvy’s faith is strong, and they share it with the other characters, but not in a heavy-handed or preachy way. Nearly all the characters change and grow, even the minor ones I didn’t necessarily like. Heitzmann tackles tough topics — abuse, mental illness, organized crime, family relationships, forgiveness, trust, love, faith — but does so without the shallow melodrama I’ve come to expect from novels in this genre.

Another thing I appreciate is her grasp of the subjects she includes in the story. She either researched or had first-hand knowledge of carpentry, construction crews, mental health matters, Italian cooking, and more. I enjoy stories that are enriched by the author’s knowledge of setting, careers, skills, time period; deft handling of those elements helps me trust the author.

One thing I’d change if I could: the proofing. I’m an editor, so one thing that affects my enjoyment of a novel is the smoothness of the text. There were some unclarified pronouns (which “he” or “she” did the author intend?) in a couple places, and sometimes the actions of one character were paired with the dialogue of another, which made for hiccups in reading, pulling me out of the story while I detangled who was talking or what was happening. Some of the errors could have been formatting glitches in the e-book. Those instances are few, however, merely cosmetic flaws in an otherwise well-told tale.

Secrets was published in 2004, and is the first in The Michelli Family Series, followed by Unforgotten (2005),  and Echoes (2007). Read more about the author and her work at her website.

A Response to Three Common Christian Arguments Against Using Foul Language in Fiction

Today’s post is the result of a question asked of me last week when I gave an abbreviated presentation on editing. The group I addressed was composed of Christian writers, some of whom are striding into edgier territory than is comfortable to many of the traditional Christian publishers.

This question probably would not have been asked, or even considered worthwhile, had I spoken to a group of writers of no particular faith, but it did stretch me to present a cogent response, and is worth discussion, especially since it brings up the notion that every word we write must have a purpose:

In writing the conflict between good and evil—what words are acceptable? Damn, hell—how graphic can a Christian writer be?

My immediate response: as graphic as your conscience allows and the story requires.

My modified response: what is allowed depends on your publisher.

But what about a Biblical response? I’m so glad you asked.

A) What about offending a “weaker brother”?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Romans 14:1-3

“Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything. But another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them.” (NLT

“Receive him that is weak in faith, but not for passing judgment. For one believes that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eats herbs. Let not him that eats despise him that eats not; and let not him who eats not judge him that eats: for God has received him.” (KJ2000)

Although we need to be mindful of others, don’t let the possibility of offending someone keep you from telling the truth. Don’t let weaker readers weaken a strong story.

Evil exists. Bad things happen—even to good people.

Consider the oppressed, tragic lives of many persecuted believers around the world. Try telling them a squeaky-clean, neatly-packaged, everyone-is-saved-and-happy-at-the-end kind of story.

That may be our ideal, but is it reality?

Use discernment.
Is evil glorified in the story?
Is it present in order to reveal truth?
Prove a point?
Provide a comparison between darkness and light?

There can be, and often are, redemptive elements in harsh stories. Context is everything. Consider your audience, and your reason for including the foul language, the violence, etc.

And remember: Everyone has to grow up sometime. One cannot always cater to the weaker believers, else they’ll never have a reason to “man up” and grow stronger. Disciple them. Show them how to be strong.

B) What about the admonition to avoid unclean speech?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Colossians 3:6-9

“Because of these sins, the anger of God is coming. You used to do these things when your life was still part of this world. But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds.” (NLT)

“For which things’ sake the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience: In which you also once walked, when you lived in them. But now you also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy talk out of your mouth. Lie not to one another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his deeds.” (KJ2000)

Not all unclean speech consists of four-letter words.

There’s gossip, slander, blasphemy, lies, name-calling, belittling, boasting, abusive speech, anything that’s meant to tear someone down. An insidious form of foul speech is the backhanded compliment, or the well-spoken but ill-meant piece of advice.

Again, context: It’s not just what you say; it’s how you say it. And how you mean it.

Do characters lie or gossip or use sarcasm in a story? Do children on a playground call names? Or is everyone in your story a perfect specimen of civility?

Remember: A major storytelling necessity is character arc, the term for the changes a character undergoes during the course of the story. The main character may begin as a foul-mouthed, brawling drunkard. By the end, however, he may have cleaned up his speech, overcome alcohol, and be working on his temper. That character’s arc/change is essential to the story.

As stated earlier, we don’t have to glorify the evil—in this case, the foul language—but we do need to tell the truth. It’s an unfortunate fact that we humans have difficulty controlling our tongues (James 3:8). If the characters in our stories act like saints in all things, they lose believability, and we lose credibility with our readers.

C) And, finally, ahem, what about avoiding unclean thoughts?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Philippians 4:8

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (NLT)

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (KJ2000)

You may not dwell in evil thoughts, but there are people who do, and therefore there are characters who do.

Those thoughts can range from wishing someone would die to actually planning a murder; from thinking oneself superior to actively working to keep others down; from thinking someone other than one’s spouse is attractive to lusting after that person; from harboring anger to plotting revenge; and so on.

Realism and character arc require room for characters to begin in a place of weakness, trouble, misguidedness, even outright evil, and then progress toward strength, peace, wisdom, goodness.

(Not all change is improvement, by the way. Some characters regress, or begin from a place of goodness or strength, and end in weakness or villainy.)

“Holier than thou” syndrome is a turn-off to believers and non-believers alike. If a non-believer reads the work, will they be offended at the presence of God in the story, or at the too-perfect falseness of the characters (Christian or otherwise)? If they’re offended by God, then tough luck. They’ll just have to remain offended. However, if the author hasn’t done his job as a storyteller, and created believable, flawed characters, then he needs to rewrite them.

Just as we living, breathing humans have shortcomings, so too should our storybook humans. Lives transform as they turn from darkness to light, and therein lies powerful storytelling. The light would not be so bright without the darkness in which it shines. A happy ending is not quite so powerful without all the struggle that came before it.

Something to consider: Perhaps the story doesn’t belong with a traditional Christian publishing house, or with a Christian publisher at all. Perhaps the work requires a secular publisher—and there are many Christians who do publish in secular rather than religious venues, simply because their work is not in keeping with the expectations of a Christian publisher or of a Christian audience.

Is the intended audience the Church, with readers who want their beliefs affirmed and don’t necessarily want to be confronted with certain words or ideas? Or is it the world at large, everyone who wants to be given hope or shown a different way?

Final thoughts

A friend read this on Facebook Monday afternoon; it was posted by E. Stephen Burnett (whose excellent post on spiritual villains can be read at Speculative Faith), who was quoting another writer:

From fantasy author Kat Heckenbach: “I was thinking about the continuing war among Christian writers. The whole, ‘Christian fiction needs to be this,’ vs. ‘No, Christian fiction needs to be this,’ war. Clean vs. gritty. Righteous vs. real. Hide in the light vs. plunge into the dark. What I think is being missed in this whole situation is this: When we say Christian fiction needs to be of a certain type, we are really saying Christians need to be of a certain type. […] God is able to meet all of those needs, and fortunately He is willing to stoop to our levels to meet them. He stoops.” So should stories.

Update (12/1/14): Another good article about foul language in Christian fiction can be found at Randy Streu’s blog, An Unfinished Life.

Update (1/20/15): An excellent piece discussing how one actually takes the Lord’s name in vain, and how profanity has nothing to do with it, can be read at Mike Duran’s blog, Decompose — “On Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain“.