Why Don’t I Write Christian Fiction?

If you’ve read any of my novels, you might have noticed that the characters within are not Christian people. In fact, most of them – even the protagonists – are not very nice people at all.

For example: In A DEATH OF HONOR, D.A.Payne haunts the sex-and-dance clubs of his seedy future. ANGEL’S LUCK hero James May steals his repossessed spacecraft back from its corrupt financier. His co-pilot, Duke, lies to escape from his two fiancees. The best description of PEMBROKE HALL’S Boddekker came from my wife: “He’s such a moral wimp.” And THE COMPANY MAN’S Andy Birch – well, when you first meet him, he’s not the kind of guy you’d want to bump into in a dark alley.

Any religious faith operates in the background of my novels. One of the few characters who is open about her faith – Lucy Harper from THE COMPANY MAN – is that way for reasons that are largely symbolic (but it also suits her character).

Does this mean that Christian characters boring? I know several characters in the Bible who would disagree… especially Saul of Tarsus (if you’re up on your Bible, you know where this is going. If you’re not, check out the ninth chapter of Acts).

This news would also be disappointing to the Christian bookselling industry – especially in light of successful series fiction titles like Tim LaHaye’s LEFT BEHIND novels. Likewise the characters in one of my favorite films, CHARIOTS OF FIRE, where the faith of one Olympic athlete fuels his drive for success and provides a conflict in the framework of the story.

So why don’t I deal with Christian characters more, since I am one? I mean, Robin Cook is a doctor who writes medical thrillers. John Grisham is a lawyer who writes legal thrillers. Isn’t there some precedent out there that says I should be writing Christian Thrillers?

Well, maybe.

But I can give three reasons why I’m not working in that particular genre:

Reason Number One:
The market for Christian Fiction didn’t exist when I was starting out.

Well, that’s not entirely true. There was Christian fiction out there, but it was rare. It didn’t become the burgeoning industry that it is now until the last decade or so. If it was out there when I was developing as a writer, I certainly didn’t see it (outside of one juvenile novel called THE SUGARCREEK GANG IN CHIGAGO, which I never finished reading).

Reason Number Two:
I let myself get put off by the Christian Fiction industry.

Sometime after the publication of THE ESSENCE OF EVIL, I had an attack of conscience and decided that Christian Fiction was out there, maybe I should be writing it. So without telling my then-agent, I put together a proposal for a novel, explained my background as a Real Writer, and sent it off.

It got rejected.

But that’s fine. I was a writer. Coping with rejection is a pre-requisite. Right? Of course.

What got me was that someone in the editor’s office took the time to hand-write a note on the form rejection telling me that I should not bother to make any further submissions to this house.

It wasn’t like they were on the verge of bankrupcy or something. Following the rules of submissions, I started with one of the top publishers with the intent of working my way down. And they’re still around – prospering, in fact – today.

So I said “Forget it,” shelved the proposal, and started working on FERMAN’S DEVILS.

Reason Number Three:
It never occurred to me to try and write anything but the kinds of stories I was interested in telling.

And for what it’s worth, I never had it in mind to tell stories about Christian folks. I wanted to write Science Fiction. And for that matter, I didn’t want to write SF about people who Sold The Moon or were the big Earth-shattering Newtons-Pasteurs-Einsteins-Hawkings of the future. I wasn’t interested in the people who shaped the future. I was more interested in people who were shaped by the future. People who were products of their environment.

The D.A. Paynes and James Mays and Andy Birches and Boddekkers.

These characters weren’t Christians. But all of them had some kind of strong moral underpinning. They just didn’t notice their (dare I say it?) values until they were up to their neck in alligators (never let it be said that I don’t know how to beat my characters up!).

Interestingly enough, for the first few books I didn’t even realize that this moral undercurrent ran through my novels. I had to have a critic put it in writing. He said: “Joe Clifford Faust’s moral universe is that of the idealistic movies of the 1940’s like CASABLANCA and THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.” That really caught my attention because CASABLANCA is my all-time favorite film, and I had just seen (and been blown away by) BEST YEARS.

But that made me think of something else. Was there some kind of moral streak running through the books that, in my closeness and newness to noveling, I had not seen? I called a friend who loved my books and loved even more to pick them apart and analyze them.

I said, “Someone just wrote a review of THE COMPANY MAN that talked about the morals in my books. I thought I was just telling a good story. What do you think?”

Without hesitating, he said: “Oh yes, HONOR and COMPANY MAN are both very moral books. It’s real obvious.”

This taught me something very important about my writing. If you’re honest with yourself as a writer, trying to tell the best story you can, your story will be an honest one. And your values will come out, no matter how hard you try to disguise them.

And when you think about it, if you’re trying your best to walk with God, that sort of thing is going to happen anyway. Even if you’re not writing books.

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11 responses to “Why Don’t I Write Christian Fiction?

  1. I’m glad you don’t write Christian novels. I too am Christian but it seems that everything with the label “Christian” on it, seems to be a vehicle for evangelizing. People don’t pay to be evangelized – and that’s the bottom line. People pay to be entertained, or to be challenged in their thinking.

    Personally, I think the Christian worldview has missed out on a lot. Chiefly, the fact that, if we -mankind – are made in His image, than it stands to reason that even the most angry atheist, through no fault of his own, reflects God in some fashion. Maybe in his intelligence, or maybe in his humour.

    It’s for that reason I stepped away from the church environment and rhetoric, if only to clear my head a bit. (Ok I went off on a tangent there. Maybe I need to blog this out)

    As for writing…when I write, I write for *me*. If I can entertain myself, there’s a good chance I’ll be able to entertain others. If what gets written flows well, and draws me in, then it’s likely it’ll draw others in too.

    If on the other hand, I find myself getting pissed off by an obvious evangelical message……well, you get the idea.

    People will come to God, or not, on their own terms. There’s a reason we’re individuals, with individual methods, habits and trains of thought. It stands to reason that a relationship with God is an individual thing. I don’t believe for a second that there’s a valid cookie-cutter process for it all.

    • I have less a problem with the evangelizing part of it. Some years ago, I was called by an editor who wanted me to submit stories to a famous Dirty Magazine. I could make the story about anything I wanted, just so long as there was a prominent sex scene in the book. Had I ended up picking up a sample copy of said Dirty Magazine and read one of the stories, would I have been surprised to find a sex scene? No. Would I have been annoyed by its gratuitousness? Depends on whether it advanced the plot or not. Same with the “come to Jesus moment” found in a lot of Christian fiction.

      What annoys me is the lack of quality in the writing and plotting, although things are better than they were. For a while there, the Christian Book Market was booming so much that editors were taking anything written in complete sentences that a) was about the same people at the end as the beginning, and b) had a C2J moment. The market has since settled down a bit as the genre began to shake off some of the old conventions and better define itself. Some of the hacks got better, and some better writers have come along.

      Re: writing for yourself. Good!

      Re: Atheists reflecting God somehow. Great point. Of course they do. They just don’t see the reflection.

      And I’ll send some prayers your way for helping you to find a suitable Christian family (as opposed to Christian environment)

      • I think if Christian books were marketed as Christian books, I’d have less of a problem with finding, as you hilariously put it, the C2J portions of it. Some of them are being marketed simply as novels. For those of us who know the Christianese code, it’s annoying to find out halfway through that that’s what we have in our hands.

        As for your offer of prayer: thank you. Unfortunately I think I’m out of the running on that one, and am not really interested in attending church anywhere for the moment. Some old friends thought that this meant I had fallen away. However, I beg to differ, big time. :) (I kind of imagine that you, being an elder, have seen this sort of thing before, this mindset. I’m told there are quite a few people who have opted to still follow God but outside of church)

        Hmm. I think I really do need to blog this one out.

      • Yes, blog it out. Or even just write it out if you want to keep it private. It’ll help you sort your thoughts out.

        And, as the song goes, I don’t need your permission to pray for you. But I’ll keep it low key and respectful. ; )

  2. I came across one of your posts a while back, but never looked much further, but on finding my way back I’ve read through some of your essays about your Christian beliefs. I have to say that I really appreciate a lot of what you’ve said, and feel that it is in many respects applicable to me, as someone who would like to get into the publishing industry, specifically Christian fiction (because so much of it is horrible – like you said, bad writing, poor plots, little to no character development… I have a silly idea I’ll be able to help get better stuff on the market…)

    Anyway, sorry about the ramble, but I wanted to suggest (if you haven’t already heard of it) a book called “The Christian Imagination,” in particular one of the essays contained within called “Christian Fiction: Piety Isn’t Enough.” It really helped to clarify some of the problems I already felt were there, and why they are in many ways worse for Christian fiction than secular.

    And again, I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve read on here so far, so thank you and God bless.

    • Thanks for the recommendation. It looks like a fascinating book. I put in a request to get it in Kindle format, but I may have to break down and get a Dead Tree version.

      Good luck with your mission to bring a better quality of work to the Christian Fiction genre. Somebody needs to do it. I once had it in my head to do that sort of thing, but the people in the industry that I had contact with apparently didn’t see it that way. So I wrote a book about a witch who has a crisis of faith as a mainstream novel.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment and the book title. Here’s wishing you the best in your writing. Let me know how it goes.

  3. If your novels tell the truth – then they are Christian.

  4. Thank you for this post. I am a new author (just released my first novel last month) and it is labeled Christian fiction. I am also a pastor and okay with this. I helped label it. I found this post encouraging to me because reviews can hurt sometimes. I have gotten some really good reviews but I recently read one that said my book was not Christian. They didn’t feel I was spiritual enough. I confess that part of me cheered at that comment. Mainly because I wanted to write a story that wasn’t preachy, that non Christians would pick up and enjoy. (My work is a YA urban fantasy/ action adventure.) Part of it did sting however because I began to wonder if perhaps I hadn’t done enough on the spiritual side of things. I write about people fighting demons. They use swords not prayers. I like that. To me its symbolic. But maybe I was to subtle. But then I read this post and I felt better. Why? because I wrote the story I felt good about. I wrote honestly. And I know my walk with God and believe that pieces of it will shine through to readers. This reminded me of my goal in writing. I didn’t want to hit people over the head with cheesy sermonettes. I wanted to write a story that I liked and let it give glimpses of the hope we have in Jesus, about how he can free us, about how he can redeem us. I feel like I did that.

    So, making a long post short, thanks for your point of view. :)

    • Congrats on your first novel! Don’t worry about the negative reviews – one of the side effects of the Christian Book Market, I think, is readers expecting the formula of a Come To Jesus moment in every story. My problem is that it creates a pat and oft times unsatisfying ending, even though it gives the readers what it wants. Like the film God’s Not Dead,, which I mostly admired, but I think it would have been much better if (SPOILER) Kevin Sorbo’s character hadn’t died and come to Jesus at the end, but continued his career. Because that’s what the world does. Many are called, few are chosen, all of that. (/SPOILER) Though I suppose it worked for most other folks who watched it because of its idealized view of the world and Christianity. All I know is that Carl Sagan never had a come to Jesus moment that I know of.

      So shake off the reviews that don’t mean anything. I don’t mind bad reviews if they explain why they didn’t like the book, and you’re not going to make everyone happy anyway – especially in the Christian marketplace. Sounds to me like the folks who didn’t like your book probably would have complained about Christ’s frequent user of parables.

      Besides, there’s another tack you can look at. In Drawing Down the Moon, I deal with a Wiccan who is having a crisis of faith, but there’s no CtJ moment. And even though the woman appears to have abandoned her faith by the end, two Wiccans have contacted me with high words for the respectful way that I treated their faith. So that has opened up the chance to dialog with them. If I’d done this as a straight Christian novel, they never would have written me because that respect wouldn’t have been there. Seems to me like generating a conversation does more good than shutting the door. But maybe I’m a heretic. XD

      Anyway, my verbose way of saying rejoice when your intended message hits the target, and don’t worry about the arrows that miss the mark. And keep writing, because you’re only going to get better!

  5. Thanks so much. I found your point about wanting a come to Jesus moment funny. One of the negative reviewers also mentioned that. They felt like my ending lacked because there wasn’t this big salvation experience. A character was helped and didn’t immediately come to Jesus. But I felt like that was more reality. As the trilogy progresses we will see this character work out their feelings about salvation and redemption and God.

    Anyway, thanks for the encouragement. :)

  6. I am struggling very much because I love science fiction and writing about artificial intelligence but honestly I worry that Christians in general will shun it. I find myself feeling like I have to “shun” the people in my life (like my mother) who feel Christians have a “calling” to only write what is “glorifying to God.” I like science fiction/fantasy and I don’t have any sex or profanity in my books but its so frustrating to think Christians will not approve unless you’re Karen Kingsbury, who my mother adores by the way. I usually argue that I am just the one holding the mirror, but I still feel very conflicted because I’ve had to cut a lot of people off who’ve asked me, “why are you trying to be like the world?” and tell me that God gave me a gift to evangelize. Sorry for the rant, but I would love some advice on how to deal with these comments especially from family members (inner circle). I used to write the romance come to Jesus moment fiction and I was miserable because it’s not what I enjoy to read, looking back those stories make me gag. I’m actually glad I was rejected by agents, the meanest rejection letters I got were from Christian agents LOL! Anyway, I would appreciate any advice on responding to the critics that matter on this, it’s becoming very lonely and I don’t have much support.

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