GhostBox_3DI’ve been getting some great reviews for The Ghost Box since its release last month. Grace Bridges said the novel is “Funny as heck… with some awesome surprise twists.” Mike Roop described it as “a good metaphysical action romp… Think Harry Dresden meets The Librarian meets The Lone Gunmen from X-Files.” And Lelia Rose Foreman writes, “This noir paranormal filled with science-fiction tropes done fresh and with humor made for an exciting read.”

This week only, The Ghost Box is discounted to $0.99 for Kindle.  If you’re into Urban Fantasy with a touch of sci-fi, a sprinkling of archangels, a smidgen of neuroscience, and a dash of shape-shifting ninjas, hurry on over to Amazon and download The Ghost Box for $0.99 this week only.

 

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Film critic Jeffrey Overstreet, in his book Through a Screen Darkly, talks about the backlash he received from concerned parents after his favorable review of the film Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. One parent wrote,

“If you think anything meaningful can be conveyed by pagan mythology, you’ve just opened up Pandora’s Box.”

Overstreet responded,

She would probably be dismayed if I pointed out that she, by making reference to a pagan myth [Pandora’s Box], had conveyed something meaningful to me. (pg. 151)

This parent’s approach (and its utter contradiction) is symptomatic of many evangelicals’ approach to pagan mythology and secular art in general. Just replace her reference to “pagan myth” with any number of contemporary pagan mythologies evangelicals eschew and you’ll see what I mean.

“If you think anything meaningful can be conveyed by [secular films, non-Christian novels, worldly music], you’ve just opened up Pandora’s Box.”

Of course, this assumes a secular / sacred divide which has become part and parcel of many evangelical critiques of culture.

A recent article in The Imaginative Conservative entitled The God of Men—and of Elves: Tolkien, Lewis, and Christian Mythology describing C.S. Lewis’ conversion to Christianity, notes how important his re-thinking of pagan mythology in relation to Christianity was to this conversion.

Lewis was intimately familiar with the classical mythology of Greece and Rome, and was even more enamored of the Norse myths of Scandinavia and Iceland. Lewis believed these stories he admittedly loved to be lies, he told Tolkien, albeit beautiful lies—“lies and therefore worthless,” he said, “even though breathed through silver.” He was overcome by the beauty of the stories of the ancients. They appealed to the human imagination in a way that struck squarely at the heart.

Like Lewis, many Christians approach “secular art” as lies, sometimes even “beautiful lies,” but nonetheless “worthless.” These myths, contended Lewis, while possessing beauty, were set against History, which spoke of Truth. The Historical which Lewis juxtaposed against Myth was the Gospel accounts, which he considered as historically true but lacking the “beauty” of the ancient myths. Thus, Lewis could not envision embracing the historical truth of Christianity without relinquishing the “beautiful lies” of Myth.

Enter his friend J.R.R. Tolkein who challenged Lewis’ view on the disconnect between pagan mythology and Truth.

Because man was made in the very image of God, [Tolkien] argued, man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert the things of God for his own ends, but he can never fully efface the image of God in him. He can never really be satisfied with lies. He can never escape who he really is. And for this reason, even the pagan myths retain a semblance of eternal truth, however corrupted. Ultimately, even in his imaginative creations, man is pulled back to the truths that answer to the call of his own true nature. (bold mine)

This became a turning point for Lewis. Rather than rendering pagan mythology as lies, completely meaningless, he was forced to recognize that the Beauty which so captured him in the ancient myths had its roots in History. Even though the stories and their authors were “corrupted,” it was the image of God in Man, and his inherent gravitation toward this Truth and Beauty, that Lewis could affirm.

Chesterton once said that Christianity was the “fulfillment of paganism,” an expression which strikes the Christian ear wrong. Christianity has faced to Nemeses: the idolization of the intellect, which we see in modern secular rationalism, and the idolization of the imagination, which we see in ancient paganism.

The answer, however, is to see that Christianity is the fulfillment both of man’s intellectual and imaginative quests. The apostle John says in his Gospel that Jesus was the logos, a reference to the underlying principle of the cosmos which philosophers had been seeking since before Socrates. Lewis would realize this as well. But it was Tolkien who made him realize that, in addition to Christ’s fulfilling man’s search for the True, He was also the fulfillment of man’s search for the Beautiful—and that, in fact, they culminate in the same thing.

Christianity was a true myth—a story with all the meaning and beauty of a myth, but, unlike the other myths, it was one that had actually happened in history. The myths themselves, a testimony not to history but to human desire, were pointers to the culmination of history in the Gospel story. (bold mine)

The contemporary evangelical approach to the arts often pits Rationalism against Imagination, Beauty against History, the Sacred against the Secular. But just like Lewis, I wonder that we are in need of a new understanding, an approach to the “secular” which allows us to both acknowledge what is perverse, deceptive, or corrupt, while also affirming what is True and Beautiful. We can  acknowledge the Truth as found in the great myths, and the secular arts, without condoning all their elements. Author Frederick Buechner put it this way,

“The world speaks of the holy in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language.”

Perhaps if we learned to look past the “worldly language” of our culture — the the crudeness and corruption — we would hear our culture attempting to articulate “the holy.” Unless we do, like Lewis, we may find ourselves in perpetual, albeit artificial, dichotomy.

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A Christian speed metal band used to emblazon their logo with the words, Faster for the Master. As if musical MPH was virtuous. The successful  Amazon Kindle author could probably adopt that saying for their own. Only, in their case, the Master is the market and the faster they write, the more the market is “pleased” with their service.

A fast-fingerswriting friend of mine recently signed a contract with Amazon for a YA Urban Fantasy trilogy.  But unlike the tradpub business, which has been known to stretch trilogies out for years (and stretch thick novels into trilogies), Amazon wants my writer friend to crank out all three novels in one year. That’s right:

Three novels in one year!

Apparently, it’s a sign of the times.

In his article, Why zombie ebooks are killing it on Kindle, Simon Owens provides some insight into the real success behind some Kindle authors. He uses novelist Jeremy Laszlo as an example. Like many authors, Laszlo became disillusioned with his slog through the submission process, eventually writing off traditional publishing altogether. After researching some successful indie authors, and using Amazon’s self-publishing tool for Kindle, Laszlo dove in and found a niche: writing zombie novels. But the author had been learning something other than just finding a popular niche market. Fellow zombie novelist, Bobby Adair, illustrates what is becoming a key to the success of indie authors: Cranking out stories.

Adair wrote his first zombie novel in six weeks. After tinkering with pricing and promotions, within two months of releasing his first zombie novel, he released his second. Apparently, this is the “model” many indie authors are discovering: Faster for the Master.

Owens summarizes:

Obviously, this model only works if you’re willing to write a series, and more importantly, write it quickly. If you were to release a free book and not follow up with a sequel until a year later, by then most of those readers will have forgotten you. This means pumping out a new book every two or three months. Many of the authors I spoke to said they’ll often have at least three books in a series completed before releasing the first one. Often, all three will be published on the same day, allowing the writers to hyperlink to the sequel at the end of each ebook. (bold mine)

For someone like me who takes well-on a year to crank out a book, this is intimidating. Even disheartening.  Sure, there are some changes I can make to my approach and some trade “tricks” that could make the need for speed seem less intimidating. For one thing, I could approach the books in a potential series as being not nearly as dense (both in the length and literary sense) as I am used to. Viewing each book in a series as a single TV episode rather than a full-length theatrical release seems helpful. Lowering my expectation of “quality” could also help. Kind of like seeing myself as less a culinary expert and more of a burger-flipper at McDonald’s. Whatever the case, being a “successful” indie author would seem to dictate changes are in order, at least for a writer like me.

Still, this approach seems contrary to much of the professional advice many of us were weaned on. Like Malcolm Gladwell in his best-seller Outliers where he discussed the now famous 10,000-hour rule— which is suggested to be the amount of time it takes to achieve true mastery of any field—and quotes the neurologist Daniel Levitin:

“In study after study, of composers, basketball players, fiction writers, ice skaters, concern pianists, chess players, master criminals, and what have you, this number comes up again and again.”

That’s right — “fiction writers.”

Of course, many successful indie authors have paid their dues honing their craft. Nevertheless, the need for speed, compounded by the accessibility of publishing tools, undermines the notion that mastering your craft is essential to being a successful writer. Now, it seems equally as important to know your genre and the current model for reaching your audience, as it does becoming seasoned in your skills.

Apparently, the 10,000 hour rule no longer applies to contemporary indie authors. Rather, to stay relevant, the contemporary indie author must be committed to “pumping out a new book every two or three months.” Which, for many of us, is the difference between comfortably mediocre sales and “success.” (It’s also probably why a Google search for “How to write faster” yields over 28 million hits.)

  • We don’t expect a new movie from Pixar every three months.
  • We don’t expect a new album from Radiohead three times a year.
  • We don’t expect a new novel from George Martin quarterly.
  • But we DO expect “a new book every two or three months” from our favorite indie author.

Oh well, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Which means my new slogan is: Faster for the Master. Still, I’m left to wonder if THIS “master” is really worth serving.

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In his book On Writing, Stephen King uses a unique illustration to describe the relationship of the author to her story. Novelists, suggests King, are less creators than they are discoverers. He writes,

“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth. Either way, short story or thousand-page whopper of a novel, the techniques of excavation remain basically the same.” [pgs. 163-164]

Elsewhere (in Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales), King repeats the point.

“Stories are artifacts, not really made things which we create and can take credit for, but pre-existing objects which we dig up.”

It’s an interesting perspective and one which has important ramifications on how we view fictional characters and the stories they show up in. If stories are “pre-existing objects” then the writer’s duty is simply to expose them for what they are, not manipulate them for the author’s end. But complete autonomy for a fictional character is absurd.  Isn’t it? Surely J.K. Rowling had a choice in Harry Potter’s destiny. Or did she? Did Harry exist in some archetypal gloaming which Ms. Rowling was privileged to penetrate? Or is the boy wizard simply a figment of one woman’s imagination; is Harry’s journey, his emotions, his friendships, his adversaries, HIS story, simply a pawn for his creator’s whims?

Not long ago, one of my characters woke me up. I had been wrestling through a plot problem with my WIP and this character burst into my subconscious with a startling suggestion: Kill her. I immediately dismissed the thought, kicked the troublemaker out of my brain, and tucked the would-be victim back in bed. But over the next few days, the seed of that suggestion took root. Several days later, after considerable consternation, I pulled the trigger. Literally. But something else died in the process.

My desire for TOTAL CONTROL over my story.

The possibility that fictional characters should possess a degree of autonomy scares control freaks like me. It also scares those with strict conventions about what a story should contain. I mean, the author who believes that “magic is of the devil” would have a fit controlling Harry Potter. In that scenario, poor Harry would probably renounce witchcraft and become a sock puppet for the author’s magic-less universe. Of course, while stripping Harry of any autonomy may empower his creator, it doesn’t do justice to who he actually is. Or should be. And maybe that’s the real question: How much autonomy should we give our fictional characters? And what do we do if their choices go against ours?

As King answered in his memoir on writing,

“When I’m asked why I decided to write the sort of thing I do write, I always think the question is more revealing than any answer I could possibly give. Wrapped within it, like the chewy stuff in the center of a Tootsie Pop, is the assumption that the writer controls the material instead of the other way around.” [p. 159, bold mine]

So who “controls [your] material”? You or the story and its characters?

One of my beta readers expressed a little concern for the language in The Ghost Box. Mind you, there’s no F-bombs. Nevertheless, the story involves PIs, police, criminals, and other gruff, street smart characters. The reader suggested that the profanity does not make the story any better, to which I agreed. But while the profanity doesn’t make the story any better, it is true to character. And hopefully, by staying true to the characters, my story IS better off for it.

  • Are we demanding characters that fit into our worldview, or the worldview they actually inhabit?
  • Are we constructing characters who are truly autonomous, or just puppets for our own opinions and values?
  • Do we have the courage to let our characters speak their mind, without interjecting our own?

Or is all this talk about autonomous characters complete nonsense?

All I know is that when I excavated my protagonist, he cursed. I’m hoping he will eventually clean up his language. But I’m just the author. I can only make the suggestion. The decision is ultimately up to him.

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I entered into the field of writing by way of Christians and the Christian market. At the time (2005), this seemed like the natural thing to do for me. I’d become a believer in 1980, pastored a church for a period of time, and was spiritually restless, wanting to find new avenues for creativity and spiritual growth. When the Christian magazine I subscribed to held a short story contest, I decided to enter and earned an honorable mention. A spark was struck. From there, I joined a Christian writers group. This led to the publication of other short stories and a growing familiarity with the Christian market. Eventually, I wrote a novel aimed at this market, acquired an agent, and was signed to a two book contract with a Christian publishing house.

However, over the years, I’ve wrestled a lot with the Christian market and have never felt quite at home there.

To be clear, I’m not one of those who labels all Christian fiction as mediocre, preachy, and poorly crafted junk. Over the last decade, I’ve read many terrific works published as Christian fiction and met many gifted, hard-working Christian writers. The caricatures of Christian fiction as being shallow and crappy are mostly unfair. There are legitimate reasons to write for Christians and remaining in the Christian market can be a smart endeavor for some. I don’t slight those who choose to write in that genre. Furthermore, my experience in Christian publishing circles, the writers and readers I’ve met, the agents and editors I’ve met and worked with, have been wonderful. All to say, my experience as a Christian fiction author is mostly good.

So why move to the general market?

Well, there’s no one single reason. Rather, it’s a confluence of different feelings and impressions. Here’s a few:

I’ve grown tired of the narrow theological strictures that dominate and define Christian fiction. More than once my stories have been parsed for doctrinal integrity and found wanting. This is frustrating because I consider myself fairly orthodox. I believe  in the innerancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, etc. Nevertheless, today’s Christian fiction readers demand fairly strict adherence to a set of doctrinal parameters in their fiction. (This is especially problematic as a speculative fiction writer; being free to actually SPECULATE while still being held to strict theological parameters is quite difficult!)

I’ve wearied of the argument that Christian fiction must be “clean.” Having trafficked in “the real world” most of my life, I’m used to people acting and speaking in ways that aren’t always pretty. Or conducive to my faith or personal values. Which is probably why I write characters who act similarly. Christians like to say that God accepts us as we are. Apparently, they do not extend similar grace to the characters in their novels. Thus, Christian fiction has come to be defined as the absence of profanity, sex, and excessive violence. Elsewhere, I’ve described this as a sort of “white magic” — the belief that keeping certain words and images out of my story makes it intrinsically less worldly and more holy.

Christian fiction potentially nurtures and perpetuates a dangerously narrow, unhealthy subculture. As I’ve written before, contemporary Evangelical fiction is tethered to Fundamentalist roots. Much of the Christian art industry — Christian film / fiction / music — is a reaction against secularism. This posture can be traced back to early Fundamentalism’s withdraw from many American institutions like politics and entertainment. Holiness, for Fundamentalists, came to be defined in terms of “negatives” — no smoking, no drinking, no movies, no makeup, no dancing, etc., etc. Much of the evangelical counter culture was rooted in this cultural separation. Likewise, Christian fiction appeals to and nurtures this idea of “separation.” Our fiction is different than other fiction. So while being “salt and light” means interacting with the “bland and light-less,” the Christian fiction market theoretically avoids all such “worldly” spoilage, preaches to the choir, and potentially isolates us from the marketplaces of ideas.

The demographics of the Christian market are not “speculative fiction” friendly. I’ve written a lot about this subject (like THIS) and won’t cover that ground again here. Suffice to say, with 80-some percent of Christian fiction titles being Amish, romance, and women’s fiction, speculative fiction writers and fans have managed little traction in the Christian market and have found a shortage of spec titles offered.

I simply want to reach a larger, more “spec savvy,” audience. As a fan of Dean Koontz, Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Neil Gaiman, Lovecraft, and Stephen King, I want to engage similar readers. Interestingly enough, many of these fans are Christians (or, at the least, not averse to a Christian worldview). However, these fans are not limited to the “Christian fiction” aisle. Nor is their reading confined to “clean,” theologically tight, fictional fare. Hardcore spec readers graze in larger pastures than the current Christian market cultivates. And that’s where I’d like to be.

Needless to say, moving from the Christian market to the general market will probably be a bit of a balancing act.

On one hand will be the issue of balancing spiritual content to a “secular” audience. Christian writers will often say that their stories are too religious for the general market and too gritty or unorthodox for the Christian market. That’s part of the problem — if that IS a problem — I’m getting at here. I want my general market stories to contain spiritual content. This doesn’t mean that all my stories will contain an overt religious theme or strong Christian character. But no writer can completely divorce their worldview from their stories. So while I’m not writing to preach to my readers, I’m not afraid to admit I have a worldview and beliefs that, with some excavation, can be uncovered in my general market novels. Will this turn some readers off? Maybe.

On the other hand will be my attempt to balance an existing platform developed in the Christian market with a broader, less “religious” audience. So this is the opposite issue — trying to maintain enough spiritual / religious themes to engage Christian readers. Sure, a savvy Christian reader does not require all their doctrinal i’s dotted and t’s crossed. Nevertheless, as one with a huge interest in theology and philosophy, I respect that readers seek stories that resonate with the Truth. A potential difficulty will be engaging readers who have bought my books because of the “Christian” elements, while not scaring them off with the more fanciful, gritty, unorthodox elements.

I know. I’m probably over-thinking this.

Anyway.

Bottom line: I want to write stories that contain spiritual themes and religious content but are free to noodle around with weird science, un-orthodox ideas, unholy characters, who sometimes think bad thoughts and use bad language Risky? Perhaps.

Either way, for the first time in ten years I have published a novel that is not tagged as “Christian fiction.” And, frankly, I’m really happy about it.

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“The Ghost Box” is Live!

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I’m thrilled to announce that my Urban Fantasy novel The Ghost Box is now available in print and Kindle at Amazon. Share this post! Tweet

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On Dreams, and Keeping Them Alive

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There is a scene in my first novel, The Resurrection, when my protagonist, the dim-witted but earnest Pastor Ian Clark, trashes something very important to him. It’s a plaque with the words Follow Your Dreams. The words were burned into the wooden plaque by his sister to commemorate Clark’s ordination into pastoral ministry. But after […]

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The Downside of Symbolism in Christian Fiction

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When talking to Christian authors about their novels, I’ve recently begun by asking them to describe the content of their book in terms of explicit Gospel content. On a scale of 1 to10 — 10 being straight-forward, conspicuous Christian themes and 1 being inconspicuous or non-existent biblical elements — where does the book fall? It’s […]

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Christian Fiction, Evangelism, and Parabolic Storytelling

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There’s significant discussion among Christian novelists about the aim of storytelling. Should Christians create fiction… to inspire and encourage fellow Christians? to sow seeds in non-believing readers? to simply entertain? a combination of all of the above? Jesus’ teaching methods often come up in this regard. While Christ’s methods appeared to vary per audience — sometimes […]

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Lena Dunham and That “Flash of Mortality Awareness”

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In an odd twist to our tabloid-driven obsession with “celebrity deaths,” Lena Dunham admitted her own fixation upon mortality. Although hailed as “the voice of [her] generation” and a Glamour magazine Woman of the Year, in her new book Not That Kind of a Girl, the actress, screenwriter, humorist, and feminist firebrand fesses up to […]

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Christian Fiction’s Ideal Man (or the Holy Hunk)

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CAUTION: This post contains snark, sarcasm, innuendo, wisecracks, jests, crass stereotyping, and lots of playful, but not-so-subtle jabs. Okay?   It’s no secret that women drive the Christian fiction market. Polls like the following simply reveal what they want in their fiction — men. Swoon-worthy men. I must confess, I thought this was a parody […]

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Evangelicals and Extraterrestrials: Can They Coexist? — Pt. 2

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The doctrine of the Fall and, consequently, the Atonement, are potentially the biggest areas of incompatibility between belief in God and extraterrestrials. If one believes what the Bible teaches, that the human race is fallen and Jesus has died for our sins and been raised from the dead, then those beliefs have serious repercussions upon […]

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