Monday, August 01, 2005

Pushing the Envelope

Happy Monday, BGs.

I hear a lot of folks talking here and there about "pushing the envelope" in Christian fiction. Some aren't sure what it means; some don't know how far it can be pushed; some don't want to push it; and some do. I thought might make an interesting discussion for a day or two.

Someone asked me today, "Do you ever wish you could just write what you want to write and not worry about the no-nos in CBA?" Perhaps there are authors regularly publishing within CBA who do wish that. I'm not among them. When I sit down to write my next novel for Zondervan, I don't really even think in terms of writing a Christian novel. I write the story I want to write, and from the story naturally emerges the faith element. Christian fiction is changing so rapidly, with more and more being allowed, that I don't find myself banging up against its walls as I did five years ago.

I was halfway through writing my wip, Violet Dawn, before it hit me that the story includes drug use, child neglect, physical child abuse, rape and murder. That's a lot for one CBA book. Certainly a lot more than the market would have borne a few years ago. But not anymore. The key is how those kinds of things are written.

First, I want to talk a minute to those BGs who consider their work edgy for CBA, and who have been rejected by a house or two. If you're trying to break in with edgy stuff, your writing really has to be stellar. Too often I hear unpublished authors blame the narrowmindedness of houses for not buying their manuscript, when the reason lies more with the fact that their manuscripts aren't yet up to publishable level in this extremely competitive market. The rejection letter may even allude in some way to elements in the story that the house can't publish. Now sometimes that is the only reason. Those of you who read my journey toward publication on this blog know that some houses turned down my Eyes of Elisha merely because of the visions in the story. However, many times, although the edgy elements may be mentioned in the rejection letter, the bigger reason is the level of writing. It just ain't there yet. I know that from experience, too, because it took me ten years to reach the publishable level--enough so that a house bought Eyes of Elisha despite the controversial visions that the story hinged upon. If I had sent out Eyes of Elisha even two years before, the very house that bought it probably would have then turned it down--because I still had more to learn of the craft to make that manuscript well written enough that the house would decide to take a chance on it.

So please, if you're banging your head against the wall because you think CBA is crowding you out with its "narrowmindedness"--take heart. Maybe it's only that you need to keep working on your craft. Maybe the manuscript that you think is so ready to publish, and that your friends and family tell you is so great--really isn't ready yet. As hard as that may be to hear, it's far better than to believe the market you want to write in is closing you out and will never be right for you.

As I said, the not-ready-for-publication-yet scenario is not the case all the time. But I believe it's the case a lot of the time. I hope those of you unpublished "edgy" writers who've found yourselves being rejected will hear me, because it might save you a lot of anger and frustration. Maybe you really do need to be writing for the ABA market, and if so, that's fine. Go for it with gusto. My concern as far as today's topic goes lies with those who really want to write for CBA but are afraid they will never be published within it. That may not be as true as you think.

Second, a technical suggestion for those who are writing scenes with edgy material. Focus on the emotions of the character, playing particular attention to the set-up of the action. Then when the action occurs, you won't need to detail it. For example, in Violet Dawn there's a scene where a seven-year-old girl is physically abused by her mother. The scene doesn't detail the actual beating. In fact, that doesn't happen until the end of the scene. I spend time in the scene on the set-up--the actions the little girl is desperately doing to keep from being beaten by her mother. She's trying to clean up a mess she's accidentally made before her mom sees it. She races against the clock--then against the noises she hears that tells her the mom has woken up and will soon appear in the doorway. I focus on the emotions and fear of the little girl, pulling the reader into her world. (This is the first time you meet this character.) Then when the mother appears and reacts with anger, then starts the hitting, very little needs to be detailed for the reader to fully understand what's going on. In this same way, the scene of a rape in the story is handled.

You can use this technique for scenes of violence, sex, abuse, whatever. Don't make the mistake of pulling back on the scene itself--that is, skimming the surface of the action and emotion--in order to stay within the bounds of CBA guidelines. If you do, the scene will be shallow. Instead, you need to go for just as much emotion as if every detail is shown. Then the gruesome details won't be needed.

For me, even if I was writing in the ABA market, I wouldn't want to go any further in such scenes as I do now. I just don't think details of extreme violence or sex or whatever are needed. And I believe I can write a scene with just as much punch without them.

What do you think about "edgy" writing for the Christian market? One of the problems is that the term means different things to different people. What does it mean to you? Are you having problems with writing what you want to write within the market? Do you think you've been rejected solely because of content? Are there certain issues within your wip that you're worried about?


Stuart said...

These days I don't really think there is any hard set taboo within the reaches of CBA as long as a subject is handled well. Though perhaps by "edgy" many people refer to allowing bad characters to use full on curse words, and that is probably still taboo, but at the same time not something I'm to worried about since I make up my own curses. ;)

Not really sure what edgy means to me. I never realy considered my writing edgy. Wierd and unorthodox perhaps, but not edgy.

Writing Sci-fi has always been a bit of an issue in CBA. Even now Fantasy is more of where publishers are looking for, though I think they are more open to Sci-fi than they have been in the past. Yet at the same time there have always been a few books published in the genre. So I've always held out hope and just tried to focus on writing and believing that one day I'll get in.

And I have been rejected solely for content, or lack thereof. I just got my first rejection of my current WIP due to the fact that the "Christian Content" didn't feel as central to the plot as the house would have liked. And that was pretty much the sole reason given, they liked everything else.

As far as certain issues that I'm worried about? I wonder sometimes about getting too violent, but like you say, I try not to be too descriptive. Though when describing melee fights with bladed weapons, you have to get people cut eventually. It can't be all emotion. :D

But overall I've always just gone with writing the story I have, and working to make sure I write it as best I can. I won't worry about what I can't control. All I can do is keep working and trust that in the end I'll find someone out there who will catch the same vision I have.

Anonymous said...

Wow, BC, you really hit home with this one. I abandoned writing supernatural stories because they were getting me nowhere. Now, I wonder if I should go back to them.

But I have a question: When you reach a point where you think your writing is ready for the big time, but you're still getting those rejections, how do you figure out what's wrong?

Actually, I think I'd like to state that another way: Where do you find someone with both the authority and the guts to tell you where your work stinks?

I ask this question because I was good enough to attract an agent, I've had a glowing professional review of one of my proposals, and I've even had bites from editors who had good things to say about my writing but their house wouldn't purchase the work. After going through your blog, I now know my writing wasn't stellar. My next proposal will up the ante, but if I still haven't reached the pinnacle, who can point to the specifics and tell me why?

Thanks for all you're doing. Your time and information is priceless. Perhaps, that's why it's free. ;-)


Grady Houger said...

I had never really considered publishing through CBA, I want to be in the SciFi/Fantisy section not Religious. I don't want to depict lewdness and depravity, but I figured I would write Christian solid stories for the readers who are looking for things like my wip: 100% non-human SF rated-R action/romance + magic. Ultimatly my goal was to write not for a market or genre, but the kind of story I want to read.

LaShaunda said...

I think this is the hardest part about being a writer. Not being ready for publication. It took me a while to figure it out. Now I know there is a season for everything. Your blog has helped me tremendously. I’m looking at my work now saying, OK I see what I did wrong here. I know what I need to do to improve these sentences.

I can see now were I’ve grown as a writer. Years ago, I use to think they’re not ready for AA Christian Romance. However when the market opened, I couldn’t use that excuse any longer. I had to step back and look at my work. I’m now learning how to improve my stuff and that sometimes its best to start something new. Each book you learn from. My goal now is to have a publishable book. With your advice and others, I think I’m on my way.

Cara Putman said...

For me the edge issue is: can I write a book that my non-Christian friends would read but that contains strong themes? I think in the 80s and 90s there had to be the obligatory check-the-box salvation scene that I skipped and that turned off my non-Christian friends. I think that is changing in the CBA market.

So now I struggle with how much of a message should there be? I don't hink I'll write preachy books -- at least not right now. That's not what God has put on my heart. But I do have characters who face the world and its challenges from teh perspective of their faith. And I have other character who have no Christian background and are drawn to waht they see in their friends. Will that be enough? I don't know. And I continue to pray about whether that's the right balance.

Sean Slagle said...

Writing boils down to audience. Who has God put on your heart to be your audience? At this moment in my career, I am writing to the Christians. I am speaking to the church. If a non-Christian picks up my stories and the Lord speaks to them, then who am I to interfere? But as I tell my college writing class, everything goes back to the audience. Your tone, your choice of words, your way of presenting certain scenes, all comes down to audience. If you write for children, there are certain rules. If you write for young adults, there are certain expectations. If you write for the Christian market, there are certain taboos. Any writer who wants to crack a certain market, must know and abide by the rules.