Sleeping Dragon, Pedro Lopes' speed painting

Sleeping Dragon, Pedro Lopes’ speed painting

In his essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” C.S. Lewis famously explained why he wrote fairy tales:

I wrote fairy tales because the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say. Then, of course, the Man in me began to have his turn. I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed [sic] much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.

The “watchful dragons” Lewis spoke of were, in his case “inhibition[s]” about the religion of his childhood, obligations to “to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God.”

The contemporary Christian storyteller encounters similar dragons — defensive mechanisms that guard readers’ hearts and minds when the subject of God, Christ, or religion are broached. Lewis chose fairy tales because of their “Form,” their disarming quality, their ability to “strip” stories of “their stained-glass and Sunday school associations” making the Gospel “for the first time appear in [its] real potency.”

Most Christian writers would probably say they want their stories to have such “potency.” They want their stories to slip past their readers’ “watchful dragons” and stir something beyond the fortress of their inhibitions. If so, I wonder that we’re doing it all wrong. Why? The chosen “Form” for many Christian storytellers is “Christian fiction” — stories aimed at Christian audiences with an overt Gospel message. The problem with such stories, however, is that they wake “watchful dragons,” they alert the reader’s defense mechanisms, they signal that Gospel content is present and should be handled with caution. If handled at all.

Lewis sought to retain the Gospel’s “potency” by writing fairy tales, embedding the Gospel in a less overt, less didactic fashion. In his essay “Christian Apologetics,” Lewis suggests that Christian writers should apply a similar principle to their own writing:

“What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent.”

To be “latent” is to be “embedded,” “naturally organic,” an “intrinsic part” of something else. The opposite of “latent” is when something is “obvious,” “manifest,” “clear,” or “apparent.” Thus, Lewis suggests that the types of “Christian stories” most able to “steal past [the] watchful dragons” of defensiveness and inhibition are not stories with an explicit Gospel message, but stories where the Gospel is less “apparent” and more “organic” to the tale.

And this is where I think much Christian fiction loses its potency. For the Christian writer hoping to reach unbelievers the absolute worst thing they can do is announce their story as “Christian.” No, I’m not talking about bait and switch, sneaking your book into the mainstream market in order to clobber readers with the Gospel. Christian writers who do this deserve to get reamed by readers. Nor am I talking about going out of the way to conceal any reference to the Gospel in your story. Writers who do this may deserve to be charged with “compromise.” My point is simply that when we adopt a “Form” — in this sense, the label “Christian fiction” —  we immediately wake the watchful dragons of contrary worldviews and prevent our stories from reaching unreached audiences.


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Light-under-bushelPhyllis Wheeler, co-founder of Castle Gate Press, recently cited me in her article Could You Write for the General Market? at the New Authors Fellowship. Phyllis attended my workshop at Realm Makers 2015 on The Crossover Christian Novelist. She writes,

Christian horror author Mike Duran wants to reach Christian readers… who read primarily in the general marketplace. This is an “untapped demographic,” he argues. It’s not small. And these readers are willing to read edgy books and books with fictional ambiguities.

Mike thinks that what market you aim for depends on your genre. If you’re writing romance, historical, or cozy mysteries, aiming at CBA readers makes sense. But if you’re writing sci-fi, horror, crime, YA, or urban fantasy, aiming at the general market makes sense.

He has more things to consider. Your book will be grouped alongside various general market books, including possibly erotica. What do you think about that? And, can you talk about yourself or your book without “playing the God card”?

I appreciate Phyllis expanding upon the subject. My class at RM was well-attended and I have since had terrific response. It definitely seems like a subject relevant to contemporary Christian novelists. However, it’s also a subject that remains controversial to many Christian authors. The objections are numerous. I’ve found that the four most common misconceptions and objections to Christian novelists crossing over into the general market are these:

  • “You have to compromise your message when writing for the general market.”
  • “You have to compromise your morals when writing for the general market.”
  • “Writing for the general market is less a ‘ministry’ than writing for the Christian market”
  • “You can’t write about faith in the general market; it’s anti-God and hostile to Christians”

Each of these objections deserve bigger treatment. But I wanted to address the first one as it seems to be one of the most common. Case in point, the following comment was left on Phyllis’ post. The commenter seems mainly concerned with my suggestion that the Christian crossover novelist must be able to talk about themselves and their novel without “playing the God card.” Apparently, this idea suggests to some the idea of compromise. H.G. Ferguson writes,

“…and not play the God card…” Although I wasn’t a participant at RM 2015 so I don’t have the full context of this statement, I have noted at least one bestselling “Christian” author who, interviewed in a “secular” blog, bent heaven and earth itself to avoid in almost every way imaginable being identified as a Christian. Jesus said whoever is ashamed of Him, of that person He will be ashamed in the end. Are we to hide who we are, because we do not wish to offend, and because that’s where the money is? Are we to adopt unbiblical worldviews in our fiction to “fit in” the general market? Because that’s where the money is? Aiming at the general market doesn’t mean we hide our faith, we bury our love for Jesus Christ and avoid being associated publicly with “those people.” I’m sure that’s not what Mike meant — but it is what’s happening. Yes, the general market wants a rip-roarin’ good time, and we can give them that, but never at the cost of being afraid to be known as a Christian. Jesus also said whoever denies Him, that person He will deny. Those are tough words, but they trump everything else. Especially where the money is.

H.G.’s comments represent the concerns of many in the Christian writing community. So I wanted to take a minute to offer up a few quick responses.

First, by way of clarification — By “playing the God card” I’m referring to the belief that unless one constantly references Jesus, Scripture, or their own personal faith they are somehow “ashamed of Christ.” People who hold to this view often feel compelled to routinely drop “God cards” in their interviews and social media stream. You know, they make sure to thank God or quote Scripture. However, just because I don’t mention Jesus in my books, interviews, blog posts, or articles does not mean I have denied Him. In fact, Jesus described a category of person who would profess to know Him and do lots of good works in his name, yet would not be saved (Matt. 7:21-23). Thus, it’s possible to drop the God card and not really know God. It’s also possible to NOT make mention of Him and still be saved. So it comes down to personal freedom, liberty, and the heart.

Second, Being tactful / wise / measured with your “Christian” content does not mean you’re compromising your faith. In fact, sometimes it’s the smart thing to do. Listen, we do this all the time. Whether at work, school, family gatherings, business meetings, or public events — we filter the level of our spiritual discourse. The apostle Paul said, “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders” (Col. 4:5). Jesus said, “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). The important distinction here is that people will “SEE your good deeds” not “HEAR your good words.” Frankly, some people won’t listen to your “Christian” spiel until you earn it. As a novelist, knowing your genre and knowing your craft is the best way to win an audience’s ear. Many readers are more open to listening to your “message” if they’re first won over by your tact and talent.

Thirdly, it is possible to write for the general market and be a faithful Christian. Duh. This seems so obvious as to not need mentioned. However, it’s surprising to me how many Christians equate writing for the general market as being synonymous with being worldly or being a compromiser. However, there ARE many Christian authors who write for the general market and who aren’t shy about sharing their Christian faith. Thing is, they just don’t go around bludgeoning everyone with their message. Some examples.  Veronica Roth, author of the wildly popular Divergent series wrote on her blog“I’m a Christian (as you have probably noticed).” Thing is, because she doesn’t regularly announce it or write Christian fiction, some conclude she’s a compromised Christian. Jessica Khoury, author of Origin, in her discussion with The Talon, said, “ORIGIN is not Christian fiction, but it is certainly influenced by my Christian faith. In a way, it’s what you’d call pre-evangelistic—something which attempts to get people to ask the sort of questions that ultimately can only be answered in Christ.” Pretty “Christian,” huh? Problem is, because Khoury doesn’t write Christian fiction or always talk about her faith, some assume she isn’t a real believer. But my favorite is probably Dean Koontz. Again, Koontz doesn’t write Christian fiction. However, he is open enough about his faith when asked. Which is why Hunter Baker, in Breakpoint magazine,  described Koontz as “probably the single best-selling Christian author on the planet.” Point being, writing for the general market is not synonymous with being worldly or being a compromiser.

Of course, the Christian author who intentionally avoids reference to their faith and “God talk” may need a heart check. Avoiding public mention of God / faith CAN be evidence of compromise. However, it can also be evidence of tact and wisdom. But to make blanket statements that writing for the mainstream market or not making mention of Jesus means I am “ashamed” of Christ and denying Him before men, is a rather narrow, unbiblical approach to what is a much bigger issue.


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white-egg-brown-eggAfter returning from the Realm Makers (RM) 2015 conference last weekend, I posted several random observations. One was about the refreshingly even ratio of men to women (which I’m guessing was about 50/50). I say this was “refreshing” because one of my complaints about the ACFW conferences has always been the large disparity of women to men (usually about an 80/20 split). Why that disparity was not evident at RM, even though the group was culled from ACFW, is another story. However, during the ensuing conversation on that post, another glaring inequality was pointed out about the RM demographics — the lack of people of color.

What followed was pretty typical: Theories were offered about why this is and theories were offered about how to make it right. But there were no definitive answers.

I suppose the admission that diversity is an issue for RM is a good thing. The same admission is made by most in the Christian publishing industry, of which RM is still a part, for all practical purposes. I mean, I haven’t talked to anyone who flippantly dismissed the subject as irrelevant or overblown. We all seem to acknowledge that more ethnic diversity would be a good, not a bad thing.  But, as with so many similar issues, the problem is more complex and much bigger than any single silver bullet can drop.

I wanted to take a few minutes to try to look at the bigger picture, what factors may be at work, and then make a couple suggestions for Realm Makers as it considers addressing the diversity issue.

For starters, lack of racial diversity is not just a problem for the Christian publishing community. It extends into many avenues of society, pop culture, business, academia, and politics. For example, some have long suggested that minorities are underrepresented in Hollywood. And when they are represented in film or TV, they are often portrayed as stereotypes. Money magazine recently reported that out of 500 biggest US companies, only five CEOs are black. In sports, Major League Baseball has had to address a decline in black athletes and made a concerted effort to attract more African Americans to the game. The NFL instituted the Rooney Rule which requires that NFL teams interview more minority candidates for coaching positions. In the writing/publishing community, the issue has become downright volatile. While some point out race and gender disparities at sci-fi cons, others ask Where are the Black Women in Science Fiction?, while still others go to ludicrous lengths challenging readers to stop reading white, straight, cis, male authors for one year in order to bring more diversity to the genre. Point being, what RM experienced this year was simply the tip of a very big iceberg.

Racial_and_Ethnic_Composition_by_Religious_Group_(2014) (1)Secondly, racial diversity is an issue that Evangelicals have been wrestling with (or evading!) for decades. As far back as the 1950’s Billy Graham noted that “eleven o’clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America.” Christian publishing is an evangelical creation. Some trace evangelical fiction’s inception as far back as the late 1700’s (see my essay Evangelical Culture and the Horror Genre), eventually giving rise to tales of hardworking prairie life and pioneers with strong values, devout faith, and chastity. Such stories were typically written about, by and for whites, a reflection of American Evangelicalism and its roots. As this recent Pew poll reveals, only 6% of black church-goers label themselves as Evangelical. So in many ways, Realm Makers is simply a reflection of the larger Evangelical church in America — mostly white. This isn’t an excuse or a trump card. It’s simply stating the obvious — there’s a lot bigger spiritual and social dynamics going on here.

Underlying this, and to our credit I think, is the relatively common shared belief that diversity SHOULD exist in the Church. One of the fantastical visions of heaven offered by the Apostle John is a throne surrounded by “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” (Rev. 7:9 NIV), all worshiping their God. The New Testament epistles often addressed the acceptance and integration of different classes and ethnicities into the Body, whether they be poor or non-Jewish. So it’s clear, biblically speaking, that socio-economic and multicultural diversity should be a hallmark of the Church. In this sense, the lack of diversity at RM (and I assume other Christian writers organizations) is something most want to address and correct.

The problem is always, How?

As part of contemplating this subject, I contacted some friends in the Christian publishing industry — a mix of editors, agents, publishers, etc. — in hopes of getting a bigger picture of this dilemma from the inside. I received honest, enthusiastic response from half-a-dozen folks. I’m leaving the quotes that follow without attribution, not because anything said is inappropriate in any way. Rather, knowing the potential volatility of this issue, I felt that anonymity would be best. Furthermore, I don’t want the inclusion of specific industry reps to be confused as their endorsement of anything I personally put forth in this post.

The consensus among the industry reps who responded to me is clearly that the lack of diversity is an issue in Christian publishing. (From this point, everything in blockquotes is a quote from an CBA industry respondent.)

Basically, I think the lack of diversity in both Christian publishing and ALL publishing is an issue we should all be working to correct.

This was a shared sentiment by every respondent. No one appears to be ducking or explaining away the lack of diversity in Christian fiction. Why this lack of diversity exists is a lot more sticky. Some suggested that the demographic tilt is a natural representation of Evangelical culture and the publishing industry it spawned.

The lack of diversity in evangelical fiction, specifically, is a function of two things: 1. Most of CBA publishing is run by white folks. And 2. A high percentage of Evangelicals are white, with people of color more concentrated in other non-ev circles.

I’m assuming those two are connected. In other words, most CBA publishing is run by whites because most Evangelicals, which the CBA largely represents, ARE white. I suppose that one could assume latent institutional racism in the non-hiring of more people of color at CBA publishers. Personally, I think such accusations are forced and impossible to prove. Nevertheless, one respondent definitely sees a “genteel racism” at work in Evangelical publishing.

People of color make up a 37.4 per cent of the US population (that includes Hispanics, blacks, native Americans, and Asians). So let’s make it easy and say one third of the country is a person of color. The number of authors of color in evangelical fiction would be about 2%. (To be fair, that number is a guess. It might be less. There are only a handful of authors of color in CBA fiction circles.)

Does that matter? I think it does, because it suggests that the evangelical church is predominantly white, the books they’re having made available to them are almost strictly from white authors, and there is very little opportunity for authors of color.

It means the church is ignoring blacks and Hispanics and Asians… by using genteel racism. It means the church is missing any opportunity to hear from people of color, share their experience, or make an effort to have them feel part of the greater family. Everyone loses.

Whether or not “soft” racism is at work in CBA circles, most respondents agreed that racial disparity is detrimental to Evangelicals and their connection to American culture.

…most of [Christian fiction stories] /still/ revolves primarily around Anglo-Saxon females with the occasional male protagonist. This is especially unfortunate because it puts yet another distancing step in what many perceive to be the utterly out-of-step Evangelical Movement. Not only is our culture vastly multicultural, so is humankind as a whole, and seeing that God created us, well, it seems his stamp of approval is upon many shades and varieties of people. I realize America was settled primarily by white Europeans (after the American Indians, that is), but we’ve grown and changed; shouldn’t our writing grow and change with us, especially as we make some small claim to be representatives of God? Shouldn’t the breadth of our wisdom and understanding speak to each current generation as it rises?

But while our writing should change to reflect “many shades and varieties of people,” such attempts are not without “awkwardness.”

As I see it, this issue is an outgrowth of a bigger long term challenge among Evangelicals—the general segregation of races in the church.  Christian fiction reflects the reality of the environment from which it grew. There have been great strides in this regard.  In large part because of the generational shift (both in bookstore ownership and in church membership composition) that has brought much less baggage and expectation and old experience into their faith environment.  But there are also churches like Willow Creek in Barrington who have made racial reconciliation and engagement a significant part of their mission.  There is an awkwardness there that they’ve been willing to step into and name and wrestle with.

Indeed, taking the issue head-on, despite its “awkwardness,” is a solution some respondents favor.

I do see racial diversity as a big issue, yes.

How should publisher’s address it? By telling writers they want books with characters of varying colors and cultures… make a concerted effort to include authors of color in their lines. Starting with a digital-only line is an obvious, easy way to start. And nobody is doing it. (To be fair, Moody and Whitaker House have made an attempt in the past.) To me, this is part of the way the dominant white evangelical culture. marginalizes people of color.

But is the answer as simple as publishers contracting authors of color and/or seeking stories with more diverse casts? Apparently, publishing more books for people of color has not always met with great success. One respondent wrote,

I’m aware of a few attempts by major CBA publishers to publish non-white fiction, and the books sold so poorly they were scared away from trying it again.

Some speculated that this is simply the result of the lack of readers and writers of color. When I asked if agents are actively seeking to agent writers of color for the CBA, the response was typically, “There’s not that many out there!” An overstatement? Perhaps. But it does highlight the complexity of the problem and the solution. Is this a “chicken & egg scenario”?

the biggest change will come when non-white authors rise in presence and prominence within the overall author mix.

And I think there can be a bit of a chicken & egg scenario in place…  Do we not see proposals from non-white authors because we don’t acquire authors of other races?  Or, are non-white authors not submitting to us because we don’t acquire books by anyone but white evangelicals?”

A third possibility is that there just aren’t that many people of color reading or writing Christian fiction. (As a sidenote, most of the non-white Christian authors I interact with on Facebook do not write for the CBA audience, but for the general market.)

Others noted that white authors writing people of color is a potential minefield.

There is incredible avoidance of the label or suggestion of racism and good people choose to avoid rather than risk it, I think.  Authors and publishers (who are primarily white in today’s Christian publishing space) are editorially sensitive about portraying characters of other races in ways that might be perceived as inauthentic or stereotyped. Honestly, I think there is a lot of avoidance for fear of offense as much as anything.  So, there has been a concentration in time periods and settings (historicals, Amish) that have no natural reason for the issue to be raised.

Then there is the ever-sticky suggestion that white readers simply don’t gravitate toward black characters.

I read years ago that white readers won’t buy books with characters of color on the cover. There was a big dustup when Liar was released with a light-skinned, light-haired girl on the cover [while the character was actually black]. Bloomsbury did redo the cover after angry fans took to Twitter.

But during the discussions over that issue, I heard that publishers say white readers won’t buy books with people of color on the cover. That seems ridiculous to me. We go to see Denzel Washington and Will Smith movies. I don’t believe the majority of the people in the US have anything against characters of color. I believe we’d all buy books with main characters of color if the books were available.

This is an observation repeated several times by industry reps: While covers with mixed casts are usually a plus, a lead cover image containing a person of color often doesn’t connect that well with CBA readers. In other words, CBA readers are okay with a person of color in the lineup, as long as they’re not playing lead. Make of that what you will.

But despite the difficulties and perplexities of the issue, some suggested that we are seeing slow growth:

We see a variety of ethnicities in most of our contemporary suspense — particularly when the storylines comes out of military, government, legal, or other environments that are naturally diverse.  The only exception in this regard would be romantic suspense. Though there is often a variety of ethnicities in the storyline, the  hero and heroine are usually white. I think in this case, it is because the idea of interracial romance was a taboo subject for many years.  I honestly don’t know if any of the publishers in this industry have had an interracial romance in their novels.  I don’t think it would be an issue in principal. Again, it was reflective of the church at that time.  Now, I would say that interracial marriage is normalized in most of today’s contemporary congregations. Still, I suppose it would be a bit of a breakthrough in terms of cover treatment.

As you can see, this is a huge, complex issue. Frankly, it’s encouraging to see the subject being addressed. Even though people disagree on different aspects and solutions, most of the Christian writers and industry reps I’ve spoken to see diversity as a legitimate issue needing to be addressed. This is a good thing.

So let me bring it back to Realm Makers. RM is a microcosm of the bigger issue. Obviously, there are many factors outside of RM’s immediate control that potentially speak to this issue.

  • The demographics of the Evangelical community as a whole.
  • RM’s proximity to ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers, the conference from which RM spun off of).
  • The lack of racial and gender diversity at many sci-fi / fantasy / tech cons.

Point being, again, this is a multi-tiered problem with multiple possible causes and potential solutions. Some may have to do with Evangelicals intentionally moving outside of their ingrown white religious and socio-economic enclaves. Some may have to do with a simple acknowledgement that certain people groups don’t gravitate towards the same things. Some may have to do with the possibility that Evangelicals are cultivating “genteel racism.” Which brings me to the question: So how should RM address the issue of lack of diversity?

For the record, I’m not an official rep for Realm Makers. I was on staff for the 2015 conference and have followed the group’s growth. That’s all. But my response to this issue is usually the same — You can’t force diversity. It must happen at the grassroots, as a result of genuine brotherly love, acceptance, shared interests and values, etc. Meaning, in this case, there’s little that one conference can do to affect long-term change. This isn’t to say that nothing can be done. But many other factors must be addressed before the CBA, ACFW, or groups like RM will ever see significant, long-term change.

I realize that this answer won’t satisfy everyone. Some will see it as toothless, as skirting the issue or, even worse, an extension of the “genteel racism” already at work in Evangelical publishing. My dilemma is that “quota” solutions — which are typically the most commonly offered solutions — seldom address the real issue. If racism is really at the root of the CBA’s diversity problem, then the problem isn’t solved by introducing more people of color into our stories or contracting more black authors. It’s addressed through repentance and reconciliation.

One conferee wrote about another spec conference she was on staff with that began correcting the diversity disparity by simply soliciting, recruiting, and sponsoring people of color. Should RM do something similar? Should RM begin actively targeting authors and speakers of color to attend the next conference? My bottom line answer would be… yes. But it’s a “yes” with lots of reservations and questions.

One of the industry insiders I questioned perceptively wrote,

My opinion is that there is a tension between natural inclusion of ethnic characters in contemporary storylines and what is perceived a “token” characterization.

Like it or not, targeting people of color can appear “token.” As if we’re buying our way to diversity credibility. Not to mention what a “token” person of color must feel like in a conference targeting persons of of color in order to right their diversity wrongs. But there’s other downsides to quotas. For example, although the Rooney Rule has indeed played a part in the increased representation of minorities in lead coaching staff in the NFL, many suggest it falls short, that it’s simple a way to fill quota expectations without addressing larger issues of racism. For racism is a heart issue that no amount of affirmative action can cure. Of course, the issue for Christian publishing is much less meeting a quota as simply challenging a lily white status quo. And in that sense, I think an effort to reach and target more people of color would be a good thing.

Listen, I know enough Christian writers, agents, editors, and readers to confidently say that lack of diversity is an issue we genuinely want to deal with. It’s just such a huge, complicated issue, and the subject is so volatile, that making headway seems to be getting harder and harder to do. But I’m encouraged. Probably because their are Christian publishers out there that say things like this:

…I admonish Evangelicals, especially, to open their Facebook doors, open their hearts, and learn to be as inclusive as God is inclusive. It means toning down our preachy ways; it means foregoing our reactionary ways; it means listening longer than we talk; it means loving so deeply and realistically that we could never be accused of being “one of those Bible bangers,” but merely “a friend who believes.” It means writing like we believe all that. I can’t wait to see fresh new work from the Evangelical realm that is inclusive of people as a whole, that tackles big ideas, and that is honest to the point of shaking us up substantially more than we’re accustomed to. This, I believe, is the thing that will finally put “Christian fiction” on the map in a positive way, and appeal to the largest group of readers out there: our mission field, so to speak.

Amen and amen.

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I arrived home from Saint Louis and the Realm Makers (RM) 2015 conference yesterday and promptly took a two-hour nap. Writers conferences are not the best place to catch up on rest, nor should they be! Better to burn the candle at both ends, meet people, grill industry insiders, hob-nob with “celebrities,” and take advantage of the numerous opportunities such events afford, than arrive home and wish you’d mingled more. Anyway, I’ve had a little time to ruminate on the conference and wanted to offer some brief, random observations.

  • The Realm Makers team put on a very professional conference. Sure, there were some glitches here and there, some logistics that could have been re-worked. But all-in-all, I was impressed with Becky Minor’s team and how prompt, friendly, and committed to detail they were. Typically, conferences at this stage of infancy (RM is only 3 years old) experience significant growing pains, some of which translates into skimping on details. From my vantage point, RM didn’t cut corners. Many props to Becky Minor and her team.
  • The enthusiasm level was extremely high. Whether it’s because the timing was just right for such an event, the unique mix of people, the pre-conference chatter and networking, or simply because so many geeks were in the same place at the same time, the buzz never let up. During the two-and-a-half days I was there, I never got the sense that we’d exhausted each others company or the things we could learn about and teach each other. Sure, this is usually true of most writers conferences. However, I personally felt the vibe was, well, transcendent.
  • The industry appears to be taking notice. Dave Long, representing Bethany House (BH), was a last minute addition. But with  BH being the biggest publisher represented at the conference, this seemed to indicate that some of the “gatekeepers” are taking notice. (Apparently, this may have been one of the few oversights of the RM team as Dave didn’t have nearly the number of appointments and pitches he should have, being that he was a late add.) Steve Laube of Enclave publishing was there, as were several other agents and indie presses. Hopefully next year the organizers will extend invitations to more publishers, including mainstream outfits with spec imprints. Also, it would be nice to see Publishers Weekly and some more mainstream reps contacted for possible reportage.
  • The growing interest in “crossover” publishing. Some of this observation comes from leading a workshop on “The Crossover Christian Novelist.” It was very well attended and received. And I only covered half my material! There seemed to be a growing sentiment among many attendees that taking their writing to the general market was not only practically but philosophically expedient. At one point in time, going mainstream seemed to be viewed in evangelical circles as being a sellout or a compromiser. If you weren’t writing explicitly about the Gospel, you were copping out. Thankfully, the evangelical writing community seems to be growing up in this regard.
  • The surprising interest in “Christian Horror.”  Perhaps it was because my workshop was the only one on the list for that particular genre, but I received lots of inquiry and positive feedback about the subject. I brought ten hard copies of “Christian Horror” and sold them all. I had at least a dozen discussions with Christian writers who felt stigmatized by the label (by other Christian writers) and were struggling with how to frame its compatibility with contemporary evangelical fiction. As with my previous workshop, I only covered half my material. It really seems like there’s quite a bit of room for the subject of horror to continue to be explored by Christian novelists and at future conferences.
  • Clean Paranormal Romance. In conjunction with my “horror” discussions were several writers who said they were exploring the idea of “clean” paranormal romance. While they liked the genre, they were completely turned off by its proliferation of erotica. My response was that I could never see a traditional Christian publisher taking a chance on such a thing. However, I could see a legitimate place in the market for such a sub-genre. (In fact, some mainstream presses are open to Christian authors who write”clean,” values-driven fiction that is not preachy.) I really like this idea! Memo to indie publishers: Might “clean” Paranormal Romance have a place in your catalog?
  • Realm Makers and its relation to the ACFW. Without going into too much detail, RM is a direct result of a growing sentiment among Christian fans of spec-fic that the genre was being under-represented in the ACFW. The American Christian Fiction Writers advertises itself as “The voice of Christian Fiction” and is the largest organization of Christian writers in the world. I’ve attended two of their national conferences and been a member at different times along my career. However, the feeling among many spec fans was that they were outsiders in the ACFW ranks. This was also my observation. I’m saying this NOT to create an antagonism between the two groups. In fact, I believe BOTH genres and BOTH groups serve a purpose. However, I DO think that the growing popularity of RM validates the belief that speculative fiction fandom is a lot bigger than what mainstream Christian publishers are currently representing. How, or if, RM will affect future ACFW conferences is something I’m really keeping a eye on.
  • There’s some fantastically creative, aspiring, Christian writers. Listen, there’s a lot of mediocre talent out there. Most of us need a good dose of reality to realize how uninspiring and ordinary our stuff sometimes is. Writers conferences are good at doing that. However, I personally was pleasantly surprised by the number of unpublished authors I met who have some really good ideas. One guy in particular named Jason asked if we could schedule some time together. He’s been writing an anime serial on Deviant Art and has a lot of followers. But the series is not monetized and he wants to reboot it. Anime and graphic novels are typically not something Christian novelists aspire to. However, when Jason shared with me his ideas, showed me character sketches, a detailed map, and explained the ideas behind the story, I was really impressed. This guy had put some serious thought into the series. As with most of these things, the big difference is not between good ideas and bad ideas, but between a creative who simply aspires and one who rolls his or her sleeves up and completes the project. Either way, Jason was just one of several unpublished authors I was impressed with. Good to see the creative spark being fanned among believers!
  • Mending broken bridges. It’s a little surprising to me how many people view me as a grumpy, unapproachable, malcontent… only to meet me and come away saying just the opposite. Frankly, I am happy to dispel that notion! But it does say a lot about our social media presences and what they say about us. So there was a person attending the conference who I’d unfriended on Facebook. We’d had several brief, but tense public exchanges. Well, I knew he would be there and wondered how we’d get along. The first day, I saw him avoiding me. Later I approached him and said, “Hey! You’re the guy I unfriended on Facebook.” He apologized for his words, but I laughed, shook it off, and said I harbored no grudges. He seemed genuinely touched. That evening I sent him a Friend request. In the end, this may be the most important thing that happened for me at RM 2015. I’m wondering how many other bridges were mended this weekend.

Anyway, that’s just a quick thumbnail of what was a rich, rewarding experience for me. It’s left me feeling rather encouraged about Christian artists and our potential impact upon pop culture. Once again, congrats to Becky Minor and the Realm Makers staff for putting on a wonderful conference. I’m eager to see where this “movement” goes.

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This week I’m flying to Saint Louis for the Realm Makers Writer’s Conference. This is my sixth writers conference, but only the second in which I’m part of the faculty. Nine years ago I attended my first conference ever. And man, was I nervous.

Exhibit A: My editor appointment.

At conferences, much of the interaction with editors occurs apart from appointments. The protocol is, have a pitch ready, stalk the victim (good timing and location are optional), and share your book idea. While most of these professionals are very accessible, I must say, I scored a big fat zero in this category. My first actual editor appointment was with Dave Long. Not only was Dave an acquisitions editor for Bethany House (where he’s still employed), but he was a much sought-after liaison between writers and the industry. His Faith-in-Fiction site was a popular place for Christian writers to discuss fiction and the publishing biz, and Dave accommodated.

So we had our fifteen minute meeting. I was comfortable with my pitch, had the checklist in order: One Sheet, short blurb, comparable titles, blah, blah, blah. And I made sure to open with small talk. Mustn’t forget that. Dave was gracious and affable during our meeting. But my sweat glands weren’t complying: I started sweating like a pig. I mean, really sweating! I could feel my face flushing, moisture pooling on my forehead. I knew I was in trouble when he stopped me mid-pitch and offered to get me a towel and a change of clothes. Okay, it wasn’t that bad. It just felt like it. It was humiliating.

I left that appointment feeling like a complete failure.

Well, a lot has happened since then. I’ve been agented, dropped, re-signed, contracted for two books, had them published, self-published four more, continued blogging, kept up on social media, joined a writers group, attended more writer’s conferences, expanded my network of industry connections, and basically kept plugging forward with my writing career.

And something else has happened along the way: I chilled out. I stopped stressing out so much about writers conferences. I stopped worrying about having everything in order. I pared down my checklist. I made a decision to go with the flow. I stopped over-preparing.

I suggest you do the same.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting you attend a writer’s conference unprepared. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have a good pitch or a One Sheet or comparable titles ready. I’m not suggesting you should be pushy and sloppily dressed and endlessly winging it. I mean, you won’t win any points looking like an unprofessional boob.  I’m just saying that some of the most important stuff you need to know and experience, you can’t prepare for. Some of the most important conversations you’ll have, you can’t orchestrate. Some of the best connections you will make, will be completely spontaneous. Some of the most fun you will have will be unforced.

  • You’ll bump into someone in the elevator and strike up a friendship that will prove lasting.
  • You’ll stumble upon a great conversation in the lobby, and join in.
  • You’ll watch in dismay as an aspiring author fumbles and fawns and blathers their way to embarrassment.
  • You’ll be shocked by how much good competition is out there. And feel very very small.
  • You’ll find you have something unusual in common with another writer.
  • You will have flashes of genuine inspiration.
  • You will be shocked by how much you don’t know about writing.
  • You’ll learn how much sadness , sorrow, and disappointment lies just below the surface of many writers lives.
  • Someone you’ve never met will say they’ve been reading your blog or Facebook posts for years.
  • Your cancelled editor appointment will lead to a fortuitous conversation with another editor.
  • People will stare at your name tag with a puzzled expression before dismissively looking away.
  • Struggling through your pitch will help you, in the long run, make it better.
  • You’ll learn that that author you dislike is actually very friendly and genuine.
  • You’ll learn that that author you think is bitchin’ is pretty stuck-up.
  • You’ll be reminded how goofy lack of sleep makes you.

Yeah, there’s a lot of things you just have to experience. No amount of planning, scripting, or rehearsal in front of the mirror will really make you ready. You just need to get out there. And that’s the downside of over-preparing, the downside of the conference checklist mentality. It can get in the way, make us robotic. It can keep things from unfolding naturally. It can even make you miss some potentially providential things.

So these days, I’m putting a lot less pressure on myself to “be ready” and make something happen.

Memo: You will never be completely “ready” to attend a writers conference.

Perhaps it comes with age (I’m 57). Perhaps it comes with simply being more familiar with the industry and the people in it. Perhaps it comes with being published. Perhaps it’s just better for my mental and physical health. I dunno. Whatever it is, I’ve come to realize this: Being published won’t fill the void in your life, it won’t make you feel any more validated. It won’t make those lunch meetings with editors and agents any less awkward. In fact, all that work and money you’ve invested in your career will probably be returned in ways you don’t expect.

The people I’ve met on my writer’s journey are a lot more valuable than anything else I’ve gained.

Maybe what I’m saying is, the less you demand of yourself, the more fun you’ll probably have. The lower — or more realistic — your expectations, the less pressure to make something happen. You’ll stumble and fumble and blush and tremble. And sweat, did I mention sweat? But be ready, because some of the most important stuff you need to get from the conference, you can’t prepare for.

So by all means, get your stuff in order. And then throw it all to the wind… and prepare for surprises.

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The Soapbox Novelist


For novelists, one of the more interesting opportunities/dilemmas created by social media is the ability to voice their opinion,  not just on writing, to more people. Now, not only can you follow an author to learn more about their writing habits and upcoming projects. Stick around and you’re liable to find out their feeling on politics, […]

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Is Beowulf the First “Religious Horror” Story Ever Written?


In my recent book Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre, I note that the epic poem Beowulf is often considered one of the earliest horror stories ever written. Coincidentally, the story is also filled with religious content, making Beowulf, perhaps, one of the earliest examples of the fusion […]

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Bleeding Protons for the Glory of God


The lead character for The Ghost Box, Reagan Moon, experiences a bizarre phenomenon throughout the story which he struggles to comprehend, much less control — he bleeds protons from his fingertips. It’s not real magic, nor is it straight science. In fact, the source is rather vague. Is this a gifting from a higher source? Or […]

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Best-Selling YA Author Rachel Marks on Being a Crossover Christian Novelist


When I first joined the writing group that Rachel Marks is a part of, she was just finishing chemotherapy. That was 5-6 years ago. Rachel has since survived cancer, grown her hair back (and turned it florescent pink), and went on to have her YA urban fantasy series contracted by Amazon Skyscape. The first novel […]

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Christian Fiction’s New Guard vs. Old Guard


Last week, literary agent Chip MacGregor caused a bit of commotion in Christian fictionland by frankly commiserating the state of the industry. MacGregor wrote: “CBA [Christian Booksellers Association] fiction is in a world of hurt. When I started my literary agency nine years ago, Christian fiction was the fastest-growing segment in all of publishing, and continued to […]

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Kim’s Faith


Faith is not a delicate thing like a porcelain figurine or a dandelion. Though it starts small and gestates unseen, it often does so in harsh, inhospitable conditions, where the terrain forces it to take root in something deep and hidden. Faith does not own a summer dress and rarely lets its hair down. Its […]

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Writing for the “Country Club”


I’m currently reading a book by a popular NY Times best-selling author and am not surprised to find numerous violations of “the writing rules” — head-hopping, passives, and lots of telling rather than showing. This doesn’t distract me like it used to. My first few years as a writer were spent being “indoctrinated” about the […]

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