Tag s | Craft

Edgy Christian Fiction

A number of years ago the question of what is appropriate to include in Christian fiction was asked, and I wrote much of what is below as a reply. Recently, this issue jumped back into conversations with the release of the film Redeeming Love, based on the bestselling novel of the same title by Francine Rivers. (Some reviews of the movie, not the book, that wrestle with the debate can be found linked here: The Gospel Coalition, Plugged In, MovieGuide, and blogger Mike Duran). Thus I thought it appropriate to revisit this post.

Note that there is a considerable difference between the visual medium of film and the imaginative medium of print. This is not a discussion about filmmaking or visual media; I’d like to limit the discussion to novels in written form. Please keep the conversation inside this specific category.

Comments from the original post have been left intact to help aid our community discussion.

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In Christian fiction, how do we balance keeping the message strong and not watering it down while still wanting to reach readers beyond Christian bookstores or churches?

This has been an ongoing discussion ever since Christian fiction became a significant part of the publishing landscape in the late 70s to early 80s.

The issue as it has been presented to me is this: “Why can’t there be ‘edgy’ Christian fiction?”

My answer stays the same and comes in the form of a couple return questions: “How does one define ‘edgy’?” And “Who defines it?”

There are three main areas of dispute: (1) sex, (2) language, and (3) violence.

(1) For some readers, any sort of sexual tension, even sensuality, is off limits. Even the description of a woman’s or man’s body could have limits. But for others the threshold is much different. They think books that would get a PG-13 movie rating or even an R are acceptable. Bedroom scenes, body-part descriptions, etc., are all fair game.

(2) For some readers, any sort of coarse language is off limits. But others say the lack of coarse language is unrealistic and therefore should be used all the time. But that begs the question of what constitutes “coarse.” (In movie ratings, albeit a different medium, the use of the f-bomb as an expletive, between one and three times, will be enough for the PG-13 rating. But, according to this article, if it is used as a verb, one time, the movie will receive an R rating.)

(3) As for violence? How much “blood splatter” is considered too much? What about description of the aftermath of a terrible car accident? What about head shots by a gun? What about war novels? What about suspense or thriller novels? Should Christian fiction instead all be “cozy mysteries” where you don’t see the dead body?

I love how one Christian writer used “language” without using it. In his novel Flags Out Front, Douglas Wilson writes a scene on page 181 where it reads, “He dumped out two buckets of cuss words onto the carpet, and then spent a good ten minutes kicking them around the room with his cowboy boots.”

In that example, there is obvious coarse language being used but; I didn’t have to read the words. Plus, the description of the tirade is funny but still gets the point across without diving into a cesspool of offensive language.

There is a market for clean fiction. There is no disputing that.
The problem is defining “clean.”

I was recently asked why novels are not rated like movies. The answer is evident. Who would decide what is “clean” and appropriate for an 11-year-old? Or a 16-year-old? If it were one group, they might say “no boundaries” while another group might declare everything off-limits. Current debates in America between parents and elected school boards for public-school education is a case in point.

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from my thoughts. Feel free to discuss below.

Please read some of our other posts on this topic:

Real Life Is Edgy – Dan Balow

The Grand Canyon of Crossover Writing – Dan Balow

Eat, Drink, and be Merry – Tamela Hancock Murray

What Makes a Christian Book Christian? – Part 1 – Karen Ball

What Makes a Christian Book Christian? – Part 2 – Karen Ball

What Makes a Christian Book Christian? – Part 3 – Karen Ball

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Books Are Signposts Along the Way

By Steve Laube

The novel One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, is a series of stories linked together in the small town of Macondo in South America. It is surrounded by a swamp and thus is known for its isolation.

One day the town was infected by a plague which causes insomnia. The people of the town were not unhappy at first because it meant there was more time to get things done. But there was more to this plague. In addition to insomnia they began to lose their memory. Marquez called it the loss of “the name and notion of things.”

They countered these symptoms by writing names on things or pinning signs to them. You would walk around the town and see the words “clock,” “chair,” “dog,” “wall,” and so on. But they were afraid they would forget the purpose of the items. So they would write longer and more elaborate signs with instructions.

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The Story We Bring to the Story

by Steve Laube

With all the discussion about the craft of fiction and the need to write a great story there is one thing missing in the equation. The one thing that is the secret to great fiction. And it is the one thing the writer cannot control.

That one thing is the story the reader brings with them to their reading experience. As a reader I have the life I have lived, the people I’ve met, the books I’ve read, and the places I’ve been that I bring with me into the world your novel has created. This makes the reading of every story unique. No two people can read the same story the same way. This is why one person’s favorite book is another’s thrift store giveaway.

In the new memoir The End of Your Life Book Club author Will Schwable writes about the books he read with his Mom during the last years of her life. In his introduction he wrote something profound:

We all have  a lot more to read than we can read and a lot more to do than we can do. Still, one of the things I learned from Mom is this: Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying. I will never be able to read my mother’s favorite books without thinking of her—and when I pass them on and recommend them, I’ll know that some of what made her goes with them; that some of my mother will live on in those readers, readers who may be inspired to love the way she loved and do their own version of what she did in the world.

This is the secret to the greatest novels of all time. They were written in such a way that my story, the essence of who I am, merged with that story and it became something new. Something unique. Something inexplicable. A new story. And then became a part of who I am…and a part what I bring to the next story I read.

That’s the story I want to read. Can you write it? I can’t wait to read it.

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Diligence Is Rewarded

by Steve Laube

The ease of today’s social media communication brings a casual layer to the task of writing. Careful composition is trumped by the need for speed. For most “throw away” emails and posts that is the new normal. But it should never leak into the business of writing, either in craft or in delicate communication.

The other day I received an email query/proposal. There was a very large file attached and the body of the email read, “Here is my book. Please take a look.” No signature line, that was it. At least it rhymed. This was not a friend, a client, or someone I had ever met. But the casual, even flippant, nature of the note all but says, “I’m not serious about the craft or business of writing.”

The best writers are those who take their ideas and their words and run them through a gauntlet of critique and reformation. They pour their words into a garlic press and slice and dice them into bits that can flavor their entire book.

This takes time. This takes hard work. And it is a process that seems endless.

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He Said. She Said.

A blog reader recently left an excellent comment on an earlier post:

Tamela, fiction workshop presenters taught me that the best word for “said” is “said”–that others only tend to slow down the reader’s eye. I’d appreciate a discussion on this.

While I don’t know the workshop presenters in question, what I can guess they meant is to avoid substituting creative verbs for “said” as a tag. For example:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare,” the cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards,” the dowager sniffed.

These tags aren’t without merit, because they do help convey the emotions and actions of the characters. In fact, they could even be expanded into effective action tags. At the least, simple punctuation would keep these characters from performing the improbable task of sniffing and chuckling words:

“Cyrus, tell that joke about the tortoise and the hare.” The cowboy chuckled.

“This caviar is not up to my standards.” The dowager sniffed.

So why would fiction workshop presenters tell writers to use the word “said” as a tag? I would say that there is a time and place to use a simple tag. In a fast-paced scene, a simple tag will keep the action flowing. For example:

“Get the gun,” Bruce said.

“What?”

“I said, get the gun.”

“Why?”

“Don’t ask questions,” Bruce said. “Just do as I say. Now.”

In a case such as this, complicated action tags could slow down the rhythm and urgency of the scene, distracting the reader rather than adding to the story. The “said” tag is used infrequently to help the reader keep track of the conversation.

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Letting Go of Your Babies

One of the worst mistakes writers can make is being too possessive of their words. They fight for each adjective, adverb, and conversation tag.

My early writing suffered from too many words. I once wrote an artist didn’t “really” understand the difficulties of making a living in his profession. The editor kindly cut all instances of “really,” “just,” “so,” “very,” and other weak words experienced editors call “weasel” words.

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Floating … Floating … Gone …

Writers conferences and blogs talk about this topic often so I don’t pretend to be breaking new ground with this post. Yet I still see some floating body parts and cliches creep into otherwise great stories. No, I don’t mean murder mysteries depicting a stray arm floating in a river. I mean much gentler fare.

Yes, floating body parts offer the reader — and writer — shortcuts. But relying on them as description in narrative doesn’t challenge anyone’s imagination.

Rolling eyes

The offender I see most often is:

“She rolled her eyes.”

Yes, we all know this means that her eyes went from the ceiling and back. No, wait a minute. Her eyes didn’t go the ceiling and back. Her gaze went to the ceiling and back. See the difference? No pun intended.

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Tag, You’re It!

One of the most common habits I see burdening stories is overemphasis on conversational tags, which goes hand in hand with not making good use of action tags. Here’s an example I just made up:

“No,” she exclaimed. She looked at the the pot of stew bubbling the stove and saw red juice splattering. She began to stir.

Unable to resist multitasking, I demonstrated several bad habits in the above sample of poor writing.

First, punctuation. When a character exclaims, use an exclamation point.

“No!”

“She exclaimed” adds no new information unless you need to designate a character from several so in almost every case, omit it. Same can be said for tags such as “said” and “asked.” In fact, “asked” accomplishes nothing because the question mark says it all.

Any tag should reflect what the character is saying. “He’s a slippery snake,” she hissed, trumps, “What a viper,” she hissed. If in doubt, entertain the office cat. Read sentences aloud to make sure the tag works.

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C.S. Lewis on Writing

by Steve Laube

On June 26, 1956, C.S. Lewis replied to letter from an American girl named Joan with advice on writing:

Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
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Always Be Learning

During the Summer of 1978 the #1 hit on Christian radio was the classic “He’s Alive” by Don Francisco (click here to listen). That same Summer I attended a Christian music festival in Estes Park, Colorado and decided to take a class on songwriting being taught by Jimmy and Carol Owens. I settled into my chair near the back of the room with notepad ready.

Just as the class was about to start a bearded man slide in the chair next to mine….notepad at the ready. To my astonishment it was Don Francisco. (I recognized him from his album cover.)

Here was a singer/songwriter who had the number one hit in the nation…taking a class on songwriting! What did he think he needed to learn?

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