(First posted Dec. 3, 2012)
But lately, it’s been difficult to find. In recent weeks I read two Christian novels, one a debut, and one by a bestselling author with many titles to her credit. Both shall remain nameless here. I will not, as I first intended, write book reviews for them for Amazon or Goodreads, because my purpose is not to bash them or belittle their efforts. Heaven knows how difficult it is to write a novel. Instead, let’s learn from their weaknesses.
I struggled with how to present the Christian ideas I wanted in Time and Again and Unclaimed Legacy. It’s a tricky because you don’t want to come across as preachy or unrealistic. But one of the two so-called Christian novels I read didn’t have much of a Christian message, theme, or tone at all. Granted, I stopped reading 2/3 of the way through, but the only reference I found was a Hell-fire and brimstone preacher delivering a fiery sermon completely devoid of any useful content for his congregation (and more importantly for the reader). Don’t we get enough negative press without creating more stereotypical Christian characters ourselves? Pasting such sermons onto a story does not make it a Christian novel. (And note to author? Such a preacher sure wouldn’t condone dancing as your character does.)
Other than that, how did I like the novel?
Not so much. Just as bad as having a weak Christian message, is the overall poor writing demonstrated in this novel. I cringed, just imagining how the world will react to this “Christian” novel. Here are some problem areas:
Point of View
Readers count on getting into the head of the main character on the first page, so if your main character is Mae, and you’re telling the story from her point of view, don’t begin chapter one from Hal’s:
“The winter of ’92 is gonna go down as one to the worst we’ve ever seen.” Hal Murphy grumbled as he dumped the sack of flour on the store counter. . .He turned toward Mae Wilkey, the petite postmistress. . .
If you’re telling the story with a limited narrator from the point of view of Mae’s character, don’t suddenly go omniscient like the author does here:
She put a smile on every man’s face, but she wasn’t often aware of the flattering looks she received. (If she’s not aware, how does she know this?)
If the story is set in the 1870s, don’t use contemporary terminology and slang:
She wouldn’t use the exclamation “Hot Dog!” The term wasn’t coined until the 1900’s.
She wouldn’t “date” a man. Nor would she say “heads would roll.”
She wouldn’t call her brother a “teen,” or describe him as born with “special needs,” definitely a modern euphemism.
If her brother is mentally challenged, don’t say he’s a “quick learner” and have him managing the kitchen/household for her while she’s gone. (And how did he learn to cook anyway, since she doesn’t know how and they live alone?)
Know about the topic you’re writing about. Dogs and cats don’t eat “mash” (ground grain). And one thousand pound (overgrown, old) sows don’t bring premium price at the market.
And it’s not likely two women could or would butcher a hog alone, at night, in North Dakota in mid-January, with a pack of hungry dogs watching politely, when the hog has been lying in the road dead all day. Nor would they be able to sink fence posts in the frozen ground to build a fence. I’m just saying.
They might eat into them, but don’t say “ freight costs versus profits.”
Don’t imply two things are happening simultaneously when that’s not even possible: “He emerged, turning to lock the door.”
“The houses were built so close you could spit on the neighborhood.” Really?
“His right hand felt the tears in his coat.” This is creepy.
If you’re going to use a cliché, get it right: not a “tingling in the pit of his gut” or “snow particles.” And how can everything in town be “shut tighter than a tick burrowed in?”
“She sighed and twirled [they’re dancing] like the fanciest-reared lady.” That’s a bit racy.
I hope I don’t sound too picky. But these are basic writing skills that are covered in Writing 101. Amazingly, the examples don’t come from the debut author, but from the author with scores of titles to her credit! I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re going to write poorly, don’t let anyone know it’s supposed to be a Christian novel. I’m with David Lee Martin. Christians should reclaim the arts, striving for excellence in order to bring honor and glory to God in all arenas of life.
Let’s keep on improving our writing skills until readers stop putting our books down with a sneer. Can I hear an amen?
UPDATE: November 21, 2014
In the two years since I posted this article it’s gotten lots and lots of hits out in the blogosphere. Apparently, I’m not the only one concerned with the quality of today’s Christian fiction. You should read this awesome article by Simon Morden who touches on the same subject (only done better and in more depth): Sex, Death and Christian Fiction. I particularly like this quote he includes from Rowan Williams who is discussing writer and critic Mary Flannery O’Connor’s thoughts on writing Christian fiction. And what O’Connor says about Catholic writers goes for any Christian writer.
“The Catholic writer is precisely someone who cannot rule out
any subject matter; belief adds a dimension to what is seen, it does not take anything
away: ‘The Catholic fiction writer is entirely free to observe. He feels no call to take
on the duties of God or to create a new universe…He feels no need to apologize for
the ways of God to man or to avoid looking at the ways of man to God’. “
I try to follow O’Connor’s advice in my writitng. Bad things happen to my characters. Sometimes they leave this life without getting answers as to why. In Unclaimed Legacy, a young man dies in prison for a crime he did not commit. And by the way, he is a Christian, too. But isn’t that the way life often is? One thing my characters learn is that life is complex and God is much bigger than they ever imagined. They realize they will not get all the answers this side of Heaven.
And I bring up topics that might be uncomfortable for some Christian readers. In Unclaimed Legacy I address hypocrites in the church (a recurring topic in all my books) and wife abuse. In Every Hill and Mountain there is racism (and the “N” word) and slavery. One of the characters is kept as a stud in the attic. These are horrible topics, and I try to be discreet (probably more so than Rowan Williams), but they are a part of our history, and I think the stories need to be told.
Yes, I try to write honestly about human imperfection–especially in Christian humans. Not all readers get this. Just this morning a reader posted a review for my book Time and Again. She seems very disappointed that my main character Abby Thomas is not a dewy, perfect Christian young woman.
No, Abby is like all of us. Although trying to be good Christian, she is still sinful. As the book starts out, she finds Merrideth, the 11-year-old she is supposed to tutor very unappealing. Merrideth constantly eats junk food, so it’s no wonder she is obese. And she smells bad and her greasy hair hangs in her eyes because she refuses to bathe. To make matters worse, she has a horrible, snarky attitude and refuses to cooperate with Abby’s attempts to educate her. It’s no wonder Abby has a hard time loving her. Be honest, wouldn’t you find Merrideth rather disgusting? Here’s what the reviewer posted about Time and Again with my rebuttal in brackets:
“It’s a good story. Something different and new instead of the same old western stories. [It is not a western.] The only thing I didn’t like was the attitude of the older girls [There is only one–Abby] and what they were calling the younger one. The over all feel was “if you’re fat you can’t be pretty.” [I emphasize that Merrideth is unappealing for a variety of reasons. And Abby feels guilty for thinking of her as “fat.”] It was a bit of a turn off specially since this older girl is supposed to be a Christian. [Ah, so she is supposed to be perfect–and not notice the smell?] But I loved the scene changes and by the end attitudes had changed some…I might go check out the other two in the series but not sure if I’ll buy them yet.” [I hope she will, because Abby continues to grow as a person.]
I realize in posting this that I open my own writing up for criticism. I am not in any way trying to claim that I have arrived as a writer of Christian fiction. You can read Time and Again, now available FREE for Kindle. Try it out and see what you think my writing style. And please do continue on with the rest of the trilogy, because my writing improves and my characters learn a little more about life.
Once you understand why Merrideth is the bratty pre-teen she is in the trilogy, read Once Again: an inspirational novel of history, mystery & romance to see what kind of an adult she turned out to be. It’s book one in my Rewinding Time Series. The second book, Only One Way Home, is due out January 2015.
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— DeborahHeal (@DeborahHeal) November 22, 2014