Interview with Brandilyn Collins

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In my time away, one writer in particular helped encourage me toward deeper understanding in some of my assumptions about Christian fiction. I asked her if she’d be willing to share some of that with you here and she agreed. So today, I hope you’ll join me in welcoming Brandilyn Collins, best-selling novelist writing “Seatbelt Suspense” for Karen Ball at Zondervan (who speaks very highly of her, by the way).

Mick: Okay, I’m just going to dive in here because I want to respect your time. Your novels are praised for helping to raise the profile of Christian genre fiction. And now having reached a certain level of–oh, let’s just say it–success, specifically in your genre of thriller/suspense, you have a good vantage point on who’s driving the CBA bus. What does the driver look like? Is he taking us where we want to go? I mean, why should we writers be on this bus instead of the bigger ABA one?

Brandilyn: Mick, first I want to thank you for interviewing me. I really respect your willingness to let me say some things that are on my mind. Hope you’re not sorry for asking me in our private discussions to “take it outside.” :)

Mick: Well, above all, we need to cultivate deeper understanding of the issues facing Christian fiction. And I know you care deeply about the subject.

Brandilyn: I do. As for your question about the bus driver. In the end it’s consumers.

I can’t speak for other authors as to whether they should want to be in CBA or not. Each should go where God calls him/her to go. I personally want to be here because God called me here. And there are wonderful opportunities in the Christian market. I know it’s easy to get upset sometimes by the weaknesses we may perceive, but believe me, the secular market has its weaknesses, too.

One of the best things about the Christian market for novelists is its loving, encouraging body. You won’t find this in the ABA. Last year my publisher sent me and three other novelists on a tour together. We had a grand time talking up our own and each others’ books. My agent (who does more work in the secular market than in the Christian) told me I wouldn’t see any such tour in the secular market. There’s far too much competition between novelists. Their egos just couldn’t stand a four-in-one gig.

Or take the difference between attending a secular writers’ conference and a Christian one. The entire atmosphere is different. This is no little thing. Most of the time we poor novelists are chained in our offices, not seeing the light of day. We need each others’ support. And in CBA, we get it. This is particularly important for the aspiring writer, who has much to learn about the business as well as the craft. In CBA, you’ve got published authors willing to teach you, to answer your questions. That’s worth a lot.

Okay, hit me with the hard one!

Mick: Alright. I’ve said Christian fiction is superficial on this blog before and you didn’t let me get away with it. Maybe it’s a question of our definitions, but do you disagree with that generalization because it’s generalizing, or what?

Brandilyn: Because it’s a blanket statement about all of Christian fiction, I find it unfair and wrong. We need to break this complaint down into specifics so we can fairly look at the issue. And by the way, all you blog readers, I hope you’ll picture me sitting across the table from you, merely having a discussion, not an argument. (Preferably with a mocha in hand.) Flat words on a screen can sometimes come off far more harshly than they’re meant.

When I’ve probed folks who make this kind of statement, I’ve found they typically fall into two camps: (1) Christian fiction is below par because it doesn’t have enough literary-type novels. (2). It’s below par because the books aren’t edgy and “real-worldly” enough. Sometimes folks straddle both of these camps.

Here are my responses to anyone out there with similar complaints.

(1) If you’re going to complain about the Christian fiction market, you need to know what you’re talking about. That means you need to read the novels. How can you possibly criticize books you haven’t read? Saying, “Well, everybody says so, including some agents and editors” is just falling back on those unfair generalities. No, everybody doesn’t say so. As for agents and editors, many times they’re stuck reading submissions that aren’t even publishable. And they often don’t have time to read what’s on the shelves from a wide range of houses. Dear ones, the Christian fiction market is changing so rapidly, you can’t even judge it by books published a year or two ago. You must judge it by what’s being published now. I challenge you to consistently read at least 25% of the latest releases. (To view marketing blurbs about the last two months’ releases, see my newsletter Sneak Pique.) Read this percentage of new books (maybe 4-5 novels) every two months consistently, choosing the genres that most appeal to you. If you do that, over time you will have enough overview about the market to talk intelligently about it. (Many of these books are available in libraries.)

Honestly, I have yet to challenge a “generalizing” complainer who really knows the market. I ask them, “How many CBA novels have you read in the last year?” The last one I challenged answered that he doesn’t read Christian fiction because it’s no good. How does he know it’s no good if he doesn’t read it? His answer–well, everybody’s saying so. I find that answer unacceptable and wrong.

Know of what you speak.

(2) An entire market can’t be judged according to your perception of its lack in one or two areas. A market is made up of many different kinds of books–to please many different kinds of readers (who may have far different tastes than you). Those of you who want more literary works–I say fine to that. We already have literary-minded works, and more such authors are coming. (Per point #1, I assume you’re reading them?) For those who want edgier stuff–believe me, that’s out there already, and getting edgier all the time. I don’t find Christian authors having trouble dealing with the real world these days. But an opined dearth of, say, literary works does not make all of Christian fiction superficial. You can’t judge a romance or suspense or historical against a literary work. They’re not even trying to achieve the same things. Each book must be judged according to the conventions of its own genre. Did the novel deliver what it promised? There is some wonderful genre fiction in CBA. Speaking just for my own genre of suspense, we’ve even got all kinds of subgenres now–legal thrillers, international thrillers, police procedural mysteries, supernatural suspense, and on and on. These must be judged according to what a suspense is supposed to be. Same for the other genres.

(3) Here’s the hard reality. We can talk all we want about this issue, but the market is driven by consumers. That means you have to buy the books. If you’re in the “want more literary novels” camp, first find those current novelists who write the more literary-minded stuff, then buy them. Even if you’re complaining that these books are not yet literary enough, they’re headed in the direction you want the market to go. You want the truth about the more literary books in CBA right now? Many of them don’t sell well. Which means publishers won’t want to keep publishing them. And those of you who want edgier books (whatever that means to you–that’s such a subjective term), find the grittier novels in genres you enjoy and buy them. Write the publishers and say you enjoyed the book. This, in the end, is the best way to effect changes in the market.

Bottom line for all of us who care about Christian fiction and want to change the market: We need to follow steps 1, 2, and 3. Know what we’re talking about before we complain. Judge each book according to its delivery promise. And buy the books we like. Together we can make a difference. Merely sitting around and complaining, and blanketing the entire market with derogatory statements gets us nowhere.

Finally, I want to add that I’m in touch with lots of published Christian novelists, and I don’t know a single one who’d say he/she doesn’t have room for improvement. We all want to learn more. We strive daily to improve in our craft. And new, aspiring writers are striving to improve as well. Nothing that I’ve said above negates our desire to become better writers.

As you can see, this is too good not to continue to another day. So come on back Thursday and we’ll tackle some more. Thanks to Brandilyn for her patience and willingness to chat.

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19 thoughts on “Interview with Brandilyn Collins”

  1. Just found this blog because Brandilyn put a link on the ACFW loop so I haven’t had time to read very much. And now I’m wondering what exactly Mick said about Christian fiction since he now says he altered earlier blog entries. But I understand this much: he slammed it (I think). So sorry. I enjoyed reading Brandilyn’s defense of Christian fiction. As a Christian fiction writer and reader, I champion “the cause.” I promote Christian fiction and all the exciting new genres at my speaking engagements. Charles Colson says, “Stories change us because as we read, we identify with characters who demonstrate courage and self-sacrifice, and in the process our own character is shaped.” More importantly, Matthew 13:35 says, “Jesus used stories when he spoke to the people. In fact, he did not tell them anything without using stories.” Stories are important for Christians. Christian fiction is important for Christians. It’s an entertaining way to get across the truths of God. If you’re going to slam (put down) Christian fiction, are you going to slam (put down) Christian magazines? And say they aren’t needed? Christians read Christian magazines to be uplifted and encouraged in their faith. The saints (choir) need as much preaching to as the sinners. Maybe more. We’ve begun this wonderful, awesome, encouraging, discouraging roller coaster ride of Christianity (interpretation: plain old life but with Jesus added), and we need to keep on the track so we won’t get derailed. What better way than with Christian fiction and Christian magazines? Both encourage, enlighten, and entertain. For that matter, if we don’t need Christian fiction and Christian magazines, then I guess we don’t need Christian nonfiction either, right? Concerning slamming anything at all, is that the Christian way? Not in my book. Different strokes for different folks. If you don’t like Janette Oke books, so what? Over 21 million readers do. I personally love them and writer similar stories. I’m sorry she retired so she can’t produce more. Why slam something you don’t like? Not sure you ARE slamming. I just get that gist from reading a couple of these blog entries. Why not put slamming energies to more effective use? Like taking food to the sick? And driving a senior citizen to a doctor’s appointment? And teaching a Sunday school class? And painting a church fellowship hall? And starring in church plays? And sipping tea and swatting flies with the saints? All things that I do. All things that help people in Christ’s name (what Jesus spoke of–the cup of cold water). It sure keeps your mind occupied–and away from slamming. There. I’m done. Kristy Dykes

  2. Mick, thank you again for your honesty and willingness to change. (I didn’t want you to change because frankly, I agreed with you) But that mirror is still shining my way and I appreciate the effort you’re putting forth and the humility you display. And I’m glad that you’re making me aware of my own shortcomings and the blinders I was wearing are slowly slipping off.
    Thank you Brandilyn for your to-the-point answers. I’m sorry I judged before I knew “the rest of the story” ;)
    ~michelle

  3. Thanks for this, Mick and Brandilyn.
    I’m still catching up after being out of town for a week, so I haven’t read everything you posted since your return to bloggerville, Mick. But I want to say my admiration for you has already increased (and it was high before) due to your humble, teachable attitude. Beautiful.
    Your sister and friend,
    Jeanne

  4. Gee. I just thought, by the message that popped up every time I tried to visit this site, that you guys had locked me out! Yeah. Sometimes, I’m that insecure… :)
    I’m a member of ACFW as well, and so benefit from Brandilyn’s instruction and encouragement regularly. She’s a keeper. But, then, so are you, Mick!
    Keep writing, everyone. Keep studying your craft and improving your skills and correcting your course. How else can any writer–ABA or CBA– ever arrive at excellence?

  5. yes. right on. i’m glad to hear (read) a coherent argument that isn’t only based on “fairness” which is THE f word in my book. but she is right and while i still won’t run out and read fiction, i do read about that much nf, so i agree with you both. and her arguments about buying the genre/style/books that ring your bell make complete sense.
    i am glad you have the strength, mick, to present other opinions (i thought you did that before, but this even moreso). huzzah.
    if you’re broke and want to read these books become a reviewer, there are lots of places to do this.
    peace,
    suz

  6. Well said, Brandilyn! I confess, a few years ago I was of the same mindset, that Christian fiction lacked the quality and scope of ABA fiction. But the more I read, the more I’ve seen how we’re evolving. Real-life issues illuminated by a real-life, all-powerful, all-loving God. And we have all the genres represented–literary, suspense, mystery, historical, romance, fantasy, science fiction, you name it. These days, I hardly read anything BUT Christian fiction! We can thank authors like Brandilyn Collins, Deborah Raney, W. Dale Cramer, Lisa Sampson, Kristin Billerbeck, and so many others for raising the bar.

  7. Brandilyn not only states a clear case for Christian fiction, she helps others raise their own personal bar. If you haven’t read her blog before, I encourage you to do so at http://www.forensicsandfaith.blogspot.com/
    No angst-driven hand-wringing. Just authenticity about her own experience and lots of practical input.

  8. Mick, thanks for this interview. And Brandilyn, I appreciate your openness about a terrific topic. As a newbie fiction author, it was helpful to read what you both have to say. I can say that I do read Christian fiction and so far I am impressed and depressed. Some sings and shouts and dances. Others are riddled with cliche, point of view shifts in each sentence, and sloppy craftmanship. The best remedy is, as Brandilyn says, to buy what is beautiful, to promote that which is lovely.

  9. Good thoughts! I especially like Brandilyn’s point about reading/buying/promoting books we like in the CBA. Cindy Martinusen’s Salt Garden is one of my recent favorite books, it even won a library journal book of the year, but like some of Lisa Sampson’s more literary works hasn’t received the sales it deserves. Why is this? I believe it is because this type of Christian fiction is just now finding it’s audience. If we want some of these deeper works to be published in CBA, we gotta buy ’em folks!
    Mick, thanks for tackling this head on. We do need voices out there who call us to excellence–we also need respect and peacemakers, as you noted.
    While I think it is very important to raise the bar in our efforts to write well, I am concerned about that whole idea of judging excellence. To me, excellence is writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. God has people everywhere that need what His writers have to offer. I know an elderly woman who survived the deep grief of losing her husband by reading Heart Song Presents novels. The gentle message of love and hope in those tiny books drew her closer to God’s heart. In her grief she wouldn’t have been helped by grittier fiction. Those little romance novels aren’t going to win a Pulitzer Prize, but didn’t they do their job?
    I pray often that God will make me a better writer. I’m just starting out, struggling, learning, growing . . . I want to write books that will make a difference and sometimes I have to fight the tendency to become a book snob, especially when I read books that aren’t well crafted and break all the rules I’ve so painstakingly learned. But, it isn’t my place to judge the value of a work. Only God knows the eternal impact of any given book. Reminds me of I Cor 13–IMHO, if I write the most amazing, well-developed, real, character driven work and don’t help anyone feel God’s love then all my words are just a clanging cymbal.
    Yes, let’s strive for excellence! And YES! Let’s show respect to each other and support our fellow writers in the process. May God place us where He wants us CBA or ABA and may we strive for excellence under the direction of His Holy Spirit.

  10. I’m with Mary on this one. I do read CBA fiction and when it is good it is very, very good, but when it is bad, it is horrid.
    I think Christian fiction is getting better. I’m greatly encouraged. I think part of the reason it’s getting better is that people have spoken out, though. I think honest critique is necessary and good. One of the biggest problems with CBA fiction, I think, has been that honest critique was lacking. After all, it is unkind to speak negatively about someone’s published works. But it is unethical to readers to encourage them to pay money for bad books. So we need some honest reviews.
    In the end Christian fiction is improving. Great. Let’s keep being honest.
    BTW, my dislike for Christian fiction hasn’t been because it was not literary or edgy. I’m unapologetically a genre reader. I haven’t like Christian fiction in the past because it was poorly written and boring. Praise God that is changing.
    sally

  11. Hmmm, a bit of beauty and the beast, eh? No, not Mick and Brandilyn, but Christian fiction. Yes, we have our beasts, our superficial stories by writers some would label hacks, our good-is-all-good-and-bad-is-all-bad tales. As in no gray need apply. But there’s a lot of beauty there as well. Beauty in the sense of master wordsmiths, who can craft a story that transports, in which the reader’s senses aren’t only engaged, but captured. Whose skilled turn of phrase fills our minds and imaginations as sweetly and completely as the finest Belgian chocolate anoints the tongue…

    Huh? Oh, sorry. Now where was I? Oh yeah, beauty in fiction. And here’s the kicker–when I talk quality and beauty, I’m not just talking about literary fiction. Yes, we have some. So does ABA. Neither has a lot; neither sells a lot, generally speaking. Yes, there are breakouts, but that’s far from the norm in either CBA or ABA. Both sets of publishers bemoan the fact that when we try to publish it, readers don’t seem interested in pulling out their checkbooks to support it. Both camps have been slammed for what lovers of literary fiction perceive to be a “dearth” of “quality” in the sad writing we allow on the shelves.
    I beg to differ. (Surprised, huh, Mick? ) Quality is in the eye of the be-reader, as in who be readin’ the book at the time. And it’s not about the style of writing so much as the effectiveness of the writing. I really liked what Paula wrote. It’s not up to us to judge something inferior just because it doesn’t ring our chimes. Sure, there’s writing out there that never should have found its way to the shelf. But what concerns me more than getting more literary fiction out there is getting more true and real fiction out there in all genres and categories. Writing Chick Lit? Great! Do it with excellence. Write stories that make us laugh and relate and see ourselves and others anew. Writing romances? Yay! Craft (and yes, there’s a craft to writing romance novels!) stories that let us see love for what it really is–about obedience and sacrifice, not about having someone else make us happy. (Happiness, friends, is sadly overrated. JOY, now…that’s something to go for.)
    What I’m saying in my usual wordy style is that fiction, Christian or general, is a gift in this world, whether you’re the writer or the reader. STORY is a gift. Regardless of its packaging. The Master didn’t know from literary. He just spoke simple, honest, TRUE stories to open His listeners hearts and minds. That’s what I want to do as a writer. Speak truth, and plainly and skillfully and honestly as I can. As an editor, I want my authors to do the same. Write, and write well. Learn the craft, always working toward refinement. But don’t let anyone tell you what you write isn’t “quality” because it’s not one style or genre or another. Our quality stems from something far more simple, far more complex. True quality stems from being obedient to the call God’s given us to write, to the story HE’S given us to tell as only we can tell it.
    Mick, I’d love to read your fiction. I’m betting it’s true quality. Just like what I’ve read on your blog. I’m betting some of it will irritate me, and some of it will bless me–just like some of what I’ve read on your blog. But that’s good. Gets the mind–and the heart rate–going. Keeps me thinking.
    So, please, stay the course, bro. Keep asking the questions. Keep questioning yourself and the rest of us to ensure we’re doing the best–the VERY best–we can. Trust me on this one (though I know you won’t…you’ll have to explore and discuss and find it out for yourself), a lot of us have been fighting this battle for years. So you’re not alone. Not by a long shot. Even we (ahem!) “matronly” sorts are right there on the journey with you.
    KB

  12. This is why I love you (in the purely platonic sense)! You have recipes for tortilla soup in your sidebar. That is the coolest. Have you ever been to the Mansion on Turtle Creek? I have. ;)
    Also, Ellie is gorgeous. Thanks for the precious pictures.

  13. Thanks Mick for doing this. Thanks Brandilyn. I love your blog as well.
    I’m not sure if I’m the only african american blogger here. But I have learned so much from you guys. So please don’t take my concern as a rant. It’s just there is another world in CBA that I haven’t seen addressed in depth at any blog.
    From a reviewer standpoint my chief concern with CBA(not christian fiction) is we aren’t that different from our nonchristian counterparts, in regards to race.
    What do I mean?
    Last year I went to CBA Convention here in Atlanta with a few bookstore owner friends of mine and the books that were promoting and giving praise lacked racial diversity(my bookstore friends are white.) When I go to CBA bookstores to purchase a friends book, I rarely see books written by non-whites on the shelves. I’ve spoken to heads at Family, Lifway, you name it and they have the books–you can purchase them online– but they don’t put them in the bookstore or spotlight in their handouts. And many times we don’t even know that a new book by a latino writer it out there. And many times some of the books written live in a world where no people of color exist.
    Now that’s what secular publishers do–unless its street fiction–but Christian publishers shouldn’t do that. Right?
    So until I see some things change I can’t fully defend CBA. To me its even worse than ABA,because it seems polarized from the characters in the stories to the books on the shelves. And I’ve read many books and I’ve read many books. So I know what I’m talking about.
    Can you get CBA defender to speak with me about that? I would love to talk about it on my blog. Many of my published non white author friends would love the support that I have received from this blogging community.I appreciate the strives and bonds you are creating. Please extend it for all of us, if it is okay with you guys.

  14. Some Good Stuff on the Dilemmas of the Christian Writer

    While blogsurfing today I came across several posts by folks talking about the writing biz – more particularly about Christian fiction writers and the trials and tribulations they go through. I think most blog readers are book readers and a

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