Sunday, September 15, 2002

Christian Authors -- Go for the Bigger Market Share

Here are some questions I believe every Christian writer of fiction ought to be asking him/herself before launching into another book:

Say, you were a marketing engineer, and you have a product that will sell. You know you could either advertise it one way so as to appeal to a vast audience, or else another way to appeal to a very limited sector of society: Which would you aim to do?

In the fiction market worldwide, which has the biggest market share, Christian fiction or secular fiction?

So, as Christian writers, why is it that we begin with the assumption that we must write only to please such a limited audience as the Christian reader's market?

Please note carefully: The question I am asking is not, should we as Christian writers conform to the world so as to please the world. The answer to that is obviously, no. Neither was Jesus, our example, conformed to the world, but His ministry reached the publicans and sinners of His day, much to the chagrin of the religious community that thought He should have targeted the limited audience of the "already righteous".

In actual fact, to simply conform our writing, or any other art form to the worlds standards would be the easiest path to take. Many of us take that route anyway with or without knowing it. Others among us finally give up and "backslide" into that mode. It is more difficult, to be sure, to stay within the yellow lines and write only what would be acceptable to the Christian reading public, producing books that conservative parents of the kids in our youth groups would approve of.

But the third way, the most challenging, is to write stories that would compete with the likes of Harry Potter, Star Wars and James Bond. J.R.R.Tolkein took that route, and the recent success of his trilogy, Lord of the Rings as a film is proof that it can be done. C.S.Lewis, George McDonald, G.K.Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, John Bunyan and Charles Dickens are a few others who took that route.

The reason this way is the most challenging is because to compete, one must not only be able to think up a good plot and give it the right action, but one must also be so full of what one has received in his or her Christian experience that it simply flows out and shows up in the story even when one isn't particularly trying to write a Christian story.

In the same way that a truly transformed Christian doesn't have to go around saying he or she is a Christian -- people around about just know it, so, a writer like J.R.R.Tolkein or C.S.Lewis simply writes what's in his or her imagination and people can see Christ in it.

Without judging the average writer for Christian markets -- it's too easy to take a good plot, make sure it's child safe, fill it with Christian terminology and maybe even a gospel message, and there you have it -- a book for the Christian market. It's like the Christian who has to drop phrases like "praise the Lord", paste Christian bumper stickers on their car and visibly pause to say grace before each meal, because without doing that people wouldn't know he or she is a Christian.

Again, I'm not judging. Many writers for the Christian market do display an excellent inner life. In fact, it is those writers that I'm attempting to challenge, by this tirade, to look to grabbing the bigger market share. And I include in that challenge, writers who have not yet been successful in the writing market, but feel writing fiction is a gift they must pursue.

So how can we possibly rise to such a challenge? Let's look at the challenge in the two parts that I stated four paragraphs ago: 1. think up a good plot and give it the right action; and 2. let our light shine through it.

Action and plot -- Last year, I did something that some in the Christian world see as controversial: I read the first two books in the Harry Potter series. I figured that if one lady could single handedly turn a generation of children back to books, there had to be something I could learn from her.

J.K.Rowling's stories move along very quickly. She places a challenge or a cliff-hanger every few (if not in every) chapter. There's the big challenge to be conquered at the very end, but there's also a long series of smaller challenges all along the way so that the reader doesn't have to wait all the way to the end to feel like he or she has had a satisfying reading experience. Of course she keeps them guessing how the big challenge at the end will turn out, in almost the same way as a who-done-it.

There may be other factors as well, some perhaps not so healthy, but suffice it to say that one big lesson we can learn from J.K.Rowling is, the day of long detailed descriptions is over.

The long wordy narrative used by Charles Dickens (It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the longest of stories, it was the shortest of stories because I stopped reading it right about that point), and even by J.R.R.Tolkein, which I patiently plodded through at the age of 13 (which I can't imagine very many 13-year-olds today doing), just won't do. Video games provide a much quicker thrill, and Ms Rowling wisely took that into account.

In Dicken's day, they didn't have TV or movies. Attention spans, even of younger children, were much longer then, and long descriptions of ordinary things got their imaginations going and filled a gap -- now filled by TV and motion picture.

Even in the sixties and early seventies, when Lord of the Rings began to rock the literary scene, TV was only just discovering colour, and you could sometimes spot the nylon string they used to hold up the model space ships against the painted starry backgrounds. The parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments looked like it was done in colour pencil. The most oft repeated words of children watching sci-fi or anything requiring special effects was "Oh man! That's so fake!".

Children were the hardest to fool, and they still are. But technology has caught up, not only with TV and films that make the unreal look very real, but now with video games in which children can actually navigate in realistic unreality (okay, virtual reality).

What I find amazing is that in spite of all that, literature has still proven to be such a powerful medium. It's just that we have a new set of rules to go by, that's all. But if we learn to apply those rules, long after we have forgotten all of the debate over whether the Harry Potter phenomena is a good thing or not, we will find that J.K.Rowling has done us all a valuable service simply by placing literature back into the centre of the playing field.

So, avoid long descriptions -- unless the description is of something so strange and wonderful that it becomes a part of the appeal, and does to the imagination what Spielburgian special effects do to the screen. What this calls for is imagination on the part of the author, innovation, and the daring to do what one hasn't seen done before. There will be criticism, to be sure, but anyone who advances beyond the traditional boundary lines of ordinariness can expect that. The next part, letting our light shine, we will look at how to know where the line is drawn between what would be God pleasing and what would not.

We badly need innovation. Peretti is also a good example of that. His including of angels and demons as characters in his narratives, was a bold step which also inspired me in my writing. He only targeted the Christian market, of course, but his fearless innovation is just the ingredient that could just as easily grab the secular world.

Also, avoid the copycat approach. We can learn a lot from people like Stephen Spielburg, J.K.Rowling, John Grisham, Stephen King, Tom Clancy and others, but we must be original. We learn, but we must innovate so that our ideas won't be immediately recognised as coming from another author or producer. A story about an orphan named Perry Hotter, who goes off to a school for young evangelists, would be a copy-cat approach. It might be read by some of the teens in your local youth group (provided their parents force them to) but it will never replace Harry Potter.

Does anyone still remember Jonathan Livingston Seagull? Soon after that made the best sellers list, along came a book by a Christian writer, called Benjamin Alexander Sheep (or something like that). It was cute, but it didn't get any of Jonathan's market share.

Another aspect of plot development we can learn is discovery. It could be deeper levels of reality, or something that makes everything else -- things that were taken for granted -- all suddenly come together. Mystery novels, of course, are built entirely around the discovery aspect, as the reader discovers at the end who the murderer really was. Other stories also make use of discovery, perhaps in a less profound way.

I remember the "discovery" experience I had when I finished The Hobbit, and started into The Fellowship of the Ring. At the end of The Hobbit, we rejoice as Bilbo Baggins arrives home with a new toy, a ring that not only helped him get around a dragon earlier on, but can now be used to avoid meeting unpleasant relatives. When Fellowship... opens, we realise that this very ring is the one ring of power that was once worn by the darkest of powerful forces who was thereby enabled to maintain a rule of tyranny over all of Middle Earth -- dark times they were, indeed. Now this very same dark force knows the ring still exists, and is even now, looking for it. Our gut reaction is, "Oh my God! And it's been sitting in the desk drawer all this time!"

The same discovery happens as we follow Harry Potter, an orphan boy sleeping in the closet under the stairs in his uncle's and aunt's home where he's a second class citizen. At the age of eleven he discovers for the first time who his parents really were, and he enters their world of witches and wizards, unknown territory to him, only to find that he is already famous. From an orphan boy with no future, he's suddenly in a different world where the opposite is true.

Or, what about Luke Skywalker, when he finds out he's the son of Darth Vador? (Or our discover that Darth Vador was once a cute little boy, and Yoda was once a boring committee member...!)

What discoveries from the life of faith can be drawn on to provide a story with mystique? What about sonship, or discovering of the true nature of God, or even what Paul calls the mystery hidden from before the beginning of the world? (Actually, Paul was quite innovative in using the concept of mystery that existed in his culture) Those are only ideas of course. No one's saying the discovery aspect even has to be something spiritual.

Where there are spiritual parallels, be original and innovative so they aren't too obvious. Again, times change. The character, Aslan may have been an ingenious parallel for C.S.Lewis to apply to Christ fifty years ago, but today's reading public may require something more subtle.

The rules of the game as far as action and plot go, are: 1. know what makes your audience tick; 2. use plenty of imagination, innovation and originality; and 3. keep the plot moving. Next, we look at...

...letting our lights shine -- There is much more we could have said about being relevant and using our imagination that I feel can be said better under the heading of letting our lights shine.

Once we are filled with the light of God, and our minds are renewed by what's really of God (and I'm purposely being ambiguous here as Christians from various backgrounds will have their own ideas on what that would entail), one of the results of that is the ability to distinguish what's really Biblical, what's truly required of us by God; and what has simply come along with our Christian experience as excess baggage. Or, to put it more simply: the difference between true Christianity and Christian culture.

The art of successfully writing faith inspired literature for secular audiences would consist of including what is essentially Christian, but leaving out the non-essential forms and traditions that the world has come to associate with Christianity. It's the art of evangelism without the subject knowing he or she is being evangelised. It's something like Jesus walking down the road to Emaeus with two of his old disciples, whose hearts burned within them, but not realising that the man walking with them was Jesus.

It's the presentation of the Person of Jesus, without spelling His name, J-E-S-U-S. Those trying to avoid alienating Jewish people call Him, Yeshua ha Moshiach. In the Islamic community, He's Isa, the Word of Allah. C.S.Lewish renamed Him Aslan, but the character of the real Jesus, by whatever name one names Him, is plainly recognisable.

In a book I'm working on now, a science fiction novel entitled The Zondon , Jesus appears as Wisdom, who speaks to the characters through a crystal, He's referred at one point to as the Word of Allah, He appears as the wandering Jew, He's even recognised for who he traditionally is, but he's never once referred to directly as "Jesus", or "Yeshua", or even "Isa". Even then, perhaps I'm more direct in my description than some readers may be comfortable with, but I catch them off guard by introducing Him first as the wandering Jew. Thus, He's no longer a handy symbol of a grand religious institution, but one who wields a two edged sword, of which the grand religious institution must also beware -- rather like Lewis' parallel of Christ, Aslan, who is a lion, but when asked whether he's a tame lion, the answer is "No". It's the portrayal of a God, who isn't the property of one institution or another.

The Zondon, like C.S.Lewis' Narnia series, is somewhat allegorical. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings isn't; meaning that there isn't a central character that represents Christ, nor a story that parallels the gospel. Nevertheless, Christlike attributes are reflected in a number of the characters. Themes that run throughout include that of the weak and simple confounding the strong, humble heroism, selfless courage, faithfulness, and love that overcomes lust. While the narrative doesn't present a gospel story, it instils values into the common psyche of society so that people will begin to recognise and desire true Christlike character when they see it -- even if they don't refer to it by the word "Christlike".

Quite a lot of this is subjective, of course, meaning that hard science and statistics will never give a conclusive answer, but it's worth asking nevertheless: Why is todays society, the Postmodern generation, suddenly asking all the right questions? Could it be that their thirst for reality and meaning was primed by people like Tolkien and other "closet Christian" authors?

Some might ask at this point, "Are you ashamed of the gospel of Christ? Then why not just say it as it is?"

This is all about "Saying it as it is", only without the usual terminology. The power of words is in their meaning, not in how you pronounce them, or what synonyms you choose.

And, no, I'm not ashamed of the gospel of Christ. I'm sometimes ashamed of the way Christian culture is foisted off instead of the pure gospel. I'm sometimes ashamed of the cultural insensitivity exhibited in some of the terminology that we use without considering how it's received by the listener. I'm ashamed by the fact that many who are truly hungry to know the person of Jesus are turned away by some of our mannerisms and some of the hobby horses we insist on riding.

Neither am I ashamed of the cross of Christ. Crucifixes, I am ashamed of -- especially the ones that were waved under the noses of Jews in an attempt to forcibly convert them to Christianity. Sometimes, I'd prefer to use a different word than "Cross of Christ", because in some minds, the meaning has been totally altered from what it originally meant. But the actual concept that the words stand for is a powerful force that needs to be put on public display, but in a way that will truly communicate to people of every cultural background.

Crucifixes, church bells, steeples, pulpits, alter calls, terminology, tradition, even soapboxes, megaphones and testimonies that make faith sound like a MLM scheme (not that all do): some of these have their place, but will only ever reach a small segment of society as a whole. But the gospel is meant to be communicated to every creature.

The whole point in breaking out and going for the bigger market share is to realise the potential of fiction in penetrating some of the cultural barriers that have held out against the traditional methods of evangelism. With fiction in the secular market, we can do everything short of leading them in a "sinner's prayer" (even that can be done at your own website, reachable through a link in your "about the author" blurb). We can pre-evangelise, we can introduce concepts that can later be used as a point of reference, we can introduce the person of Jesus, we can instil values that will hold once they are formally evangelised; with the right mixture of creativity and subtilty, anything is possible. It's called being wise as serpents but innocent as doves.

Really, the best medium of communication isn't books at all, nor audio visual, nor any other form of mass media; but rather, the personal life and character of an individual who has truly been transformed by the gospel, and who has learned to dispense with the forms and mannerisms that hinder good communication. Such a person may say nothing at all, but only stand ready to give his or her life for one other person, or for a group of people. If that opportunity never arises (has it ever arisen for most of us?), he or she is available to give one's friendship, one's time, one's resources, and even sacrifice one's reputation.

If such a person happens to be a gifted writer, then writing can become an extension of that person's influence. What the writer is, is what the writing will naturally communicate -- and that will go so much farther than what a writer tries to say he or she is.

This makes the matter of knowing where to draw lines so much easier. Your own heart will tell you when you're going too far in innovating. Just as the Law was given for those with a sin nature, so, stipulated rules of decency and guidelines of what constitutes good Christian writing acceptable by the conservative reading public, are for those who don't really know inside and need to be told what others expect.

To simply go where your heart draws you, may indeed draw the criticism of the Christian public, just as it did for Jesus. But, just maybe, you can reach a few of the people that weren't being reached otherwise.

On being controversial -- Not long ago, I realised that the Christian writer's market may be the most difficult for me to target, simply because most of my work, while directed towards Christians, is simply too -- what shall I say -- "free thinking" would be my choice of words; but "rebel", or "unorthodox", or even "heretical" might be the label some would put on it.

I don't think any of my work would be heretical. "Heretic", if you go by the Greek definition, is one who divides. One who uses any docterine, or argument, or personal appeal to draw off followers to oneself so as to cut off their fellowship from an existing group, or tries to alienate a subgroup from fellowship with the main group, would be classed as a heretic according to that definition. We could refine that definition somewhat by being specific as to how fundamental the issues are that cause the division, and exactly how far the one group or the other as wandered from basic Bible doctrine, if indeed they have.

Whichever way you look at it, I don't think anything I've written could be classed as heretical. Controversial, maybe.

The only thing wrong with being controversial is in the trying to be. If we simply follow our heart, provided our heart is pure, that is, we speak truth only because we love the truth, controversy will have no trouble finding us. There are two extremes to be avoided, or if you will, two ditches on either side of the road. On one side is avoiding controversy at all cost, which is the sin of the status quo; and on the other, purposly stirring up controversy, or the sin of presumption. On that side, are those who love controversy. They love truth, but only insofar as it's effective in stirring up controversy.

Only wisdom perceived with a clear mind can steer a straight course between the two ditches, and even then, sometimes appearing on the surface to actually succumb to one or the other extreme. Those already stuck in either ditch will always think of those not in the same ditch as them as being in the opposite ditch. That too will always be part of the controversy.

Sometimes wisdom dictates that the time has not yet come to speak out. To everything there is a season. Maybe the time hasn't come yet for you to become a widely read author. As of this writing, that time doesn't seem to have come for me either, although I believe it's the time to write.

My Church History professor once said, don't write a book until you're at least fourty. It's just too easy to write something you'll forever regret. I'm fourty-six now, so it's time for me to write now, isn't it!

When he said this, he was lecturing on the life of Oregin, the early church father. Oregin began writing while he was still young, and continued his writing career until he was quite old. Many things he wrote as a young man, he no doubt regretted much later. Many who take his works at face value fail to realise this (forinstance, his writings were used both in the arguments for and against the Arian heresy that came later).

So, wisdom may tell you, "No, you aren't stuck in the ditch. Your time just hasn't come yet." Maybe it's only time to keep quiet and listen. When I had been away from Northern Ireland for many years, I decided to go and join my father some months after my mother had passed away. Many of my father's friends are the type who tend to get extremely hot under the collar whenever the Protestant/Catholic issue comes up. My father had been away long enough to know how rediculous it all is, but his advice to me was, "Don't be quick to speak, just listen." It's wisdom, sometimes, just to listen quietly, not only so as to know what the issues are, but also how deeply they run.

Don't mistake the time to be quiet with being stuck in a ditch. Failure to realise this will only send you veering into the opposite ditch, so you end up among those who tear down, rather than a builder of the kingdom.

When you have remained quiet and keep your eyes, ears and your heart open, then the time will come, as it came for Jesus at the age of thirty, when wisdom tells you it's time to speak out, that justice cannot be served unless someone sticks his or her neck out.

Speaking out on an issue must come from pure motives. Over harshness can be the result when speaking out on an issue in which one still has unresolved conflict -- either that or over leniency, depending on ones makeup. Forinstance, one who finds oneself succumbing to sexual temptation, even if it's the temptation to look in the wrong direction at the wrong time, may tend to speak out with extream harshness against sexual promiscuity. In the same way, one who has been wounded by another's words may be too quick to use ones own words to wound others.

These would be examples of "trying to be" controversial, resulting from our blind spots. Blind spots can be quite a doozer. For instance, how can one really know one doesn't have pride? The only people who can spot pride in our lives and are willing to confront us with it are people whose authority we don't recognise, either because they're proud themselves, or else, in our pride, we can't stand their humility, or else because they're our own spouse! There's also the two ditches between obvious pride and false pride. Two more ditches constitute legalism and lawlessness. Just like we mentioned earlier, those in either ditch are not only authorities in spotting those in the opposite ditch, but they tend to include those who are, in fact, on the main road.

What's the answer? The answer is to look straight ahead to the end of the road, the end the light is shining from, and make straight for that, and not look at either ditch. Paying too much attention to either ditch will only send us into the opposite ditch. Learning by example is the best way to learn, especially when our example is the Master. Learning by negative example is among the worst ways. That only drives us to extremes.

When we look at the Master long enough, and I'm not saying I have, we can see all things in His light. We can recognise wisdom even when it comes from those in the ditches, but we also know to reject condemnation and fear.

Better still, people begin to see the Master in us -- and in our books and movies.

The most timely books that changed the way we all look at the world and at life, were writen by those who got their bearings from Him, and thus weren't afraid of a little controversy.

The changing times -- Earlier on, I referred to Charles Dickens as a Christian author. If there is doubt on that point, (apart from looking at the websites listed in the side bar) consider English society of his day. If you don't have an accurate knowledge of that period of history, then picture English society as described in Oliver Twist, and David Copperfield. Who, but someone with both the mind and the boldness of Christ would so aptly point out the injustice of society in regards to the poor and especially towards children, and the hypocrisy of the religious charitable institutions in the way they went about dealing with the inequities? One can picture Jesus prophesying against the hypocrisy of it all just as He did in Jerusalem. Who, but someone who knew the heart of Christ could illustrate so skilfully through the narrative of Great Expectations the value of relationships and acts of love and compassion over and against the ultimate emptiness of seeking a high position in society?

As a social commentator Dickens was quite radical for his day. Oliver Twist was almost like propaganda literature. In fact, the characterisation of the boy, Oliver, seems a bit stretched as we read it today. We could easily think, how can a young boy from an orphanage where he was shown no love at all, go through so much intense pressure to participate in crime, and yet end up so pure and innocent? As the preface to one edition I read points out, Dickens' probable response would have been, "My point exactly! How do we expect anyone to go through our so-called charity programs, with the attitudes we go about managing them, and turn out to be anything but a criminal?" (I'm plagiarising! I just don't remember where I read that. If anyone recognises the comment, please email me ASAP with the source.)

Today, we've learned the lessons of Oliver Twist, so what was written as a message then, only comes across today as overly contrived characterisation. When I saw the BBC film, Oliver Twist, I didn't feel it was such a great loss that they had modified the character of the boy, Oliver, just slightly. Today, we need a more realistic story. In Dicken's day, they needed to get the point.

The social issues then are not the social issues we have today, largely due to countless other social activists, abolitionists, reformers, revivalists, not to mention authors like Dickens who simply let their light shine, and let it shine in the right place -- for the whole world to see, not just the Christian getto. When the radicalism of the believing community began to wane, the torch was taken up by socialists and the proponants of liberation theology.

Nevertheless, we do have social issues today that desperately need addressing. We need believing authors with the boldness of Charles Dickens to address our deficiencies today. Dicken's can't do that, because he lived then.

Likewise, John Bunyan's work made good reading for the general public of his day. Anything that contained adventure and imagination, as Pilgrim's Progress did, was grabbed up and read, and the fact that the book has obvious Christian overtones made no difference, because society thought of itself as Christian. However, Bunyan was a bit too radical for the Christian right of his day, so he had to do a lot of his writing from prison.

Neither Dicken's works, nor Bunyan's has the radical impact on today's society as it did in their own own time, but for almost opposite reasons. The same society that has inherited so much from people like Dickens, the abolitionists and child labour activists, today no longer considers itself Christian; and so would neither accept something so obviously Christian as Pilgrim's Progress, nor be radically moved by Oliver Twist. I also mentioned earlier that C.S.Lewis' portrayal of Aslan as a Christ figure may not go over as well today as it did fifty years ago, because society has been through almost as much change between Lewis' time and now, as between Bunyan's time and Lewis'. Tokien's work still has vitality though, but as a motion picture. The book is now back on the best-seller's list due to the release of the the first instalment of his trilogy for the screen. I'm sure there are lessons to be learned from that as well.

The message is obvious. We need -- we desperately need -- people who are full of their experience with God, who aren't afraid of displeasing the Christian status quo, who know what today's reader wants in a book (if today's reader doesn't know it yet, all the better -- that's called "cutting edge innovation"), and know how to write it.

The door is open -- go for it!