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 Too often I hear unpublished authors blame the narrowmindedness of houses for not buying their manuscript, when the reason lies more with the fact that their manuscripts aren't yet up to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?