Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dark Fiction—What Is It?

The original question and answer from my interview with Sue Brower:

Is there any room in CBA (or more specifically at Zondervan) for Christian writers whose tone is somewhat dark?

You know, this is very subjective. There are several very successful authors in CBA that write what I would call “dark” fiction. However, for a first time author, it is not likely that we will pick it up.

When I wrote Sue and asked for her definition of this term, she replied:

“Dark” fiction is anything that leaves the reader feeling disturbed by what he/she is reading or that creates a negative emotional response in the reader. Sometimes it is graphically violent content, sometimes it is themes of mental illness or abuse. This in no way is an indication of how poorly a novel is written. In fact it demonstrates that the book was so well written it affects the reader’s subconscious and lingers for days after. Dark fiction leaves the reader disturbed rather than entertained or enlightened.

My own take:

Sue’s definition is interesting. I’d pretty much agree, with two expansions. First, every novel that covers difficult material is not necessarily dark. It’s how that material is handled. Second, I think dark fiction can disturb and still enlighten. Not all dark fiction does, but it can—in fact, dark fiction in the Christian category should enlighten. Otherwise, what’s the point? Knowing that Zondervan purchases only fiction that fits with its mission statement to “glorify Jesus Christ and promotes biblical principles,” I think Sue would agree with this. Although she used the word enlightened, I’d be willing to bet she meant something more like the word lightened. In other words, these books don’t leave you all warm and fuzzy.

Remember a few years ago when American Beauty won the Oscar for best picture? That movie to me is an example of dark fiction. The story stuck for days. It haunted me. For the first twenty-four hours after seeing it, I merely hated the movie. How could such a thing be voted best picture? I hated that dark story. And I could hardly agree with the ending—which shows a dead character rather blissfully floating through clouds, as I remember. Certainly not a Christian message of truth about what happens after death. But then I began to realize something. The movie was brilliantly done. The pacing, the twists, the characterization. On multiple levels that movie defined the dysfunction of so many American families today. It had to be brilliantly done to disturb me that much—to stick with me for that long and speak to me so deepy.

Still—did I find it enlightening? Not really. It spoke of the human condition, true. But I already knew those things. And it left no hope, nor gave any solutions to the misery. To me, mere dark truth is not enlightening. It’s just depressing.

Now picture this—that same story, with the Christian message infused. Not overdone (!), not tacked on, but through some natural event in the story, the viewer would get the message that Christ introduced to these families would make a difference.

That to me is an intriguing thought. And that example is precisely why I believe dark fiction can play a wonderful, significant role in the Christian fiction world. Granted, it’s not for everybody. Many people won’t find it “
safe.” Those who don’t, who are so disturbed by content that they can’t hear the message won’t like it at all. But there are others who will respond to this type of fiction.

The challenge is doing dark fiction well. That’s mighty hard because the writer faces all sorts of balances. How dark is too dark? What’s the message? How many difficult subjects and characters can be included before the story is just too weighted altogether, and that message is muddied? The worst thing to end up with is dark fiction done poorly.

Here’s the reality check. Remember Sue’s line: "…for a first time author, it’s not likely that we will pick [dark fiction] up.” That doesn’t mean Zondervan—and other houses in CBA—won’t publish such stories. It does mean they have to proceed carefully. As we’ve seen by definition, many times the darker the fiction, the narrower the target audience. Which means a smaller projection of sales. A brand new author also has a smaller projection of sales, because novels are sold on name recognition, and a new author has none. So when these two things are combined, you can get even smaller sales projections. There’s got to be something so stellar about the book that (1) the publisher believes they can edge up sales because it’s so well written and people will talk about it, and/or (2) the publisher wants to invest in this great new author, knowing that over time and with future books, his/her sales numbers will grow. Either way, it’s a gamble for the publisher. And a house can’t afford such a gamble without having other authors who are already proven and successfully selling to offset the cost.

Feedback, differing opinions?


Kristy Dykes said...

"A brand new author also has a smaller projection of sales, because novels are sold on name recognition..."

I read that and thought, "...unless the story is spectacular." Then I kept reading and saw that you said that.

I like what you said about dark fiction in the Christian market needing to enlighten the reader, otherwise, what's the point?

Thanks for a great post full of enlightening tidbits.

relevantgirl said...

I am a lot like you, Brandilyn, in that I don't mind reading dark stuff (particularly if it's suspenseful) as long as there are threads and hints of redemption. My first novel, I hope, had both: dark stuff and redemptive stuff. God's in the business of redeeming dark stuff, which is the message of my life. Obviously that will creep into my books.

Michelle Pendergrass said...

Just my own personal rant here...When I hear things like, "for a first time author, it’s not likely that we will pick [dark fiction] up." I cringe.
Worse, I get all nasty inside and feel the chains being pulled taut around my arms and chest.

It reminds me of when I went into labor, I woke up at 2:30 am, my water broke and from that point forward, my contractions were two minutes apart (or less). I went to the hospital immediately and the nurses said, "this is your first child, hun, you're going to be awhile."

I argued (like that's new?) but they wouldn't listen (nothing new there either).

My ob/gyn came in and told me it would be 24 hours or more. I told him he was full of it. He went to take a nap.

He almost missed the delivery less than 4 hours after they ALL told me it would take a long time to deliver a first child. How do they know? Because that's the way it is for everyone else?? Ugh.

Not that I'm saying Sue is wrong. She knows her job and her house. I'm just saying I hate hearing it because it seems so constricting and legalistic.

I know she said "not likely" you added that if the story was stellar, but it feels like editors and agents are always pushing away the people who don't quite fit into that box of conformity, just like the nurses and ob/gyn shoved me into their little box.

Stuart said...

You summed it up pretty good there, Brandilyn.

Though I do have to admit that the more I read about the current CBA the more it looks like I'll need to go ABA to break into publishing. Which feels like a whole new world (and quite likely a more hostile world) to explore.

Though in the end it is just another avenue for spreading God's light in the darkness.

Suzan Robertson said...

My cynical comment: It's a shame that CBA publishers think that new authors have to "earn the right" to tell the entire truth about God when there's so much decidedly unbiblical doctrine being published in CBA, on the non-fiction side. (And sometimes fiction as well.) It doesn't matter if it's shallow or questionable doctrine, as long as it is pretty and unoffensive, and makes people feel happy.

I guess that would leave out all the great classic, dark Russian literature that pointed people straight to God. Dostoevsky would have had to write a pretty little story tht kept all the CBA rules first before they'd let him write Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamozov.

Becky said...

My thoughts on this "write something else before you write your dark story" is that this advice doesn't seem sound from a marketing standpoint.

I mean, if you write a sweet prairie romance to break in and gain name recognition, who is it that will recognize your name? Those who read sweet prairie romances. So how will you market your dark story to an audience expecting you to write another sweet prairie romance?

I'm not sure I understand the economics of the suggestion.


John Robinson said...

Dang. This whole "CBA-dark fiction conundrum" is off-putting. Even more so because I write the stuff. I know, I know, the phrase is "good writing will out." But criminey. How many really good CBA writers are being forced to go a secular route because of the timidity of the CBA? It's enough to make you weep. But since I'm a guy, I'll just mutter under my breath instead..

Richard Mabry said...

Brandilyn, thanks for the open and frank discussion, all of which makes me reach for Maalox.

John, I agree with you. Sort of like going to the bank, where they'll give you a loan if you can prove that you don't need one.

Can I write edgy fiction, even "dark fiction" if I win a ready-made audience by writing something safe? But, as Becky points out, that audience may all be charter members of the BHCC.

And, Brandilyn, you bring us a reality check when you remind us that publishing, even in the CBA, is not a non-profit industry. Publishers can't afford to make too many mistakes.

In the words of the King, in Anna and the King of Siam: "Is a puzzlement."

Nicole said...

John, I've read all three of the Joe Box mysteries, and I wouldn't classify them as "dark". Gritty maybe, but not dark even with their action and themes. So you just keep right on writin' what you want, big guy.

And, at the core of BC's books, even though I said some might consider hers dark being as there are creepy evil characters and SPIDERS for cryin' out loud (!), ultimately, they aren't truly "dark" because redemption is always part of the equation/theme.

I wrote my third novel with a foreword/warning that explained I thought there were some "darker" issues included in the story (sexual addiction of one character), but as a whole, the book is really about the discovery of God's love/relationship/ and true romance.

Here we go again with the "subjective" thing.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

John, I agree with Nicole. I wouldn't classify your stuff as dark. If we did, then seems to me all PI novels and suspense would be classified as such.

Actually, I think Sue's definition (and of course, it's just her own) is quite narrow. That's a good thing. Some of the folks thinking, "Oh, sheesh, I write dark stuff--maybe that's not as true as you think.

Becky, I don't think anyone is advocating writing ETPs first as THE way to go. I'm trying to remember--I think Sue said something like it CAN be done, not that it must be done. I agree with you--certain transitions wouldn't work. The transitions that I've seen work--from so-called ETP to full-length novel--are those that had a connecting bridge. For example, Colleen Coble moved from Barbour romance to romantic suspense. There's still the romance tie. Kristin B. moved to chick lit. Others have moved but still stayed within the same target audience of women. Moving from an ETP romance to full-out suspense, or sci-fi would be a harder move. Not impossible, but the author certainly couldn't expect to bring over ever former reader.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Oh, John, also wanted to respond to this: "How many really good CBA writers are being forced to go a secular route because of the timidity of the CBA?"

There must be some in this category, but I can't readily think of them. Can anyone else? IF so, was the move truly because their stuff was too "dark," or for another reason? This is important to know. Sometimes we get these concepts in our minds, and when it comes right down to it, there's not a lot of data to back them up. I'd really be interested to know if this is true.

Most I know who have moved have come from ABA to CBA and welcomed CBA as more freeing. I know, sounds like an oxymoron, but that's true. :)

If you know of some published novelist who's been forced out of CBA because of "dark" stories, please let us all know. I think we have to stick with authors who've landed an ABA publisher because for the unpubbed it's hard to get to the bottom of the real reason--is it only because of writing "dark fiction" or is it because the level of craft isn't quite at the publishable level yet?

Stuart said...

You've got some great points there Brandilyn.

Moving back to the unpublished angle (since that's the only angle I know) I think that sometimes frustration arises for those writing "dark fiction" or any non-ETP fiction because, whether true or not, it feels like the bar on "level of craft" is set 10x higher than for those writing ETP books. Not that writing ETP books is...well easier, but because there aren't as many predjudices to overcome.

Of course there is also the market pressures as a non-ETP book that is only well written will have a harder time finding it's market and audience than a well written ETP book. Thus the craft must rise to the challenge and blow minds in order to make the risk worth it for the publisher.

So, personally, I am not really feeling "forced" into ABA as a unpublished science fiction & fantasy writer (which may or may not be dark to people), but more of finally accepting that I need to go where the market is instead of trying to force a market in a place where it isn't yet.

Just more musings. :)

Oh and the only author that I can think of who whent CBA to ABA is Stephen Lawhead...but I don't think that was forced, and it is more of him running in both circles than one or the other.

Alison said...

Very interesting.

I really like a good book, and if it is a good book that also scares me a little....I'm ok with that.

I just want the Lord to be glorified by what I am reading and putting before my eyes.

That's really all that matters to me.

Suzan Robertson said...

Brandilyn asked: "How many really good CBA writers are being forced to go a secular route because of the timidity of the CBA?"

Forced? I think it's more like a choice, IMO.

Reed Arvin tried CBA, but went to ABA because his legal thrillers were too dark for CBA at the time.

Stephen Lawhead is another one who is in ABA and I think is in CBA too.

I don't know of any others personally, except Brett Lott and Leif Enger in ABA, but they're not "dark" writers.

It's all about the money. It's all about the sales.

Publishing is a business and CBA publisher are no different than ABA in that regard. They want to stay in business and make a profit. Nothing wrong with that. They're not non profit ministries, they're for profit businesses

There are many novels that would be considered "dark" but still glorify God. Just think of some of the Old Testament. Dark at times, but God always got the glory. And I know of some ABA novels that are in this category as well.

If "dark" novels started outselling other CBA novels, CBA would be all over them. That probably won't happen any time soon,due to the demographics of CBA readership. If you write "dark" and you want to be pubbed in CBA, you have the choice to write something something that will sell first. That's one route to take, but it's not for everyone. We all have to be obedient God and the calling He's placed on our writing.

I thank you Brandilyn, for opening up this conversation

Suzan Robertson said...

Sorry for the typos on my previous post. I've been reading too many dark Russian authors, LOL :-)

Michelle Pendergrass said...

Brandilyn, contact Joe Nassise. He was president of the Horror Writer's Association for a couple years

His first novel Riverwatch was a 2001 Bram Stoker Award nominee/2001 International Horror Guild Award nominee.

Last I time I talked with him, he had a Christian novel that no one in the CBA would touch. I don't think that novel is Heretic, I think he's still got one he's trying to sell. He was on Faith In Fiction for awhile, but is having much more success with the ABA.

Also try Dan Keohane I'm pretty sure he's tried the CBA route.

Those are two that I can think of off the top of my head. I'm sure there's more. I think many have went the route of POD because they're too Christian for ABA and too dark for CBA.

Sad that we're pushed out no matter where we turn. But I think God has something up his sleeve. I'm watching with anticipation.

SolShine7 said...

In defense of CBA publishers (not that I'm one of them or have anything published by them) I think they're out there trying to find GOOD dark fiction stories but let's get real...there is a lot of crappy dark fiction by Christians tormenting the desks of CBA editors. They have to wade through all the sludge that unpublished authors pour on them in the name of God. Just because we're Christian and mention Jesus in our novels doesn't magically our stories good.

There have been several times when I went to the bookstore and picked up a Christian book with an amazing concept only to be completely turned off from the story by page three due to poor writing styles. I shake my head and mutter something like: "I wish that Frank Peretti or Francine Rivers had written this story." Then I go about my business hoping to find a new favorite author.

I say we all keep writing the best stories we can regadless of whether the CBA or ABA think there's a market for our book genres or not. The publishing industry is a beast, but even beasts have hearts. So hopefully you'll write such a great story that they can do nothing else but fall in love with it.

I just hope that all these top-notch writers are making the time to take some new writers under their wings because I think that's critical to the growth of all things Christian.

"Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game" -A Cinderella Story