Welcome back. Tonight we’ll conclude our discussion with the uncommonly talented and humble Siri Mitchell, author of 3 up-coming novels, all of which concern stretching a few CBA taboos in their aim to faithfully present the truth of her characters’ lives. (But I’d still like her even if she wasn’t a fellow revolutionary.)
Okay. So if I can aim for the “greater purpose” in that tagline above for just a moment, I’d like to try to distill this down before we go chipping away at the CBA “standards of story” once more. I don’t know a single person who doesn’t agree that writing stories differs from giving a sermon in some basic and important ways (and you know where I work, so either that’s saying something, or I’m intentionally deluding myself. Judge for yourself.) But as Craig Detweiler put it in his article “Life Outside the Christian Ghetto” for Relevant magazine’s May issue, there is descriptive truth, which paints an honest picture of the world as we know it, and there’s prescriptive truth, the analysis of the observations made. Both types work hand-in-hand to first, point out the world as it is, and then to ascribe meaning and moral balance. One without the other would be like peanut butter without the jelly, or trying to understand God’s law without grace.
But there is disagreement about whether prescriptive truth needs to be given in stories. It seems to me there is a misunderstanding among well-meaning, non-writer Christians that assumes writers control what they write. They suppose, innocently enough, that Christian writers should offer the alternative “clean” stories, putting no unwholesome thing before their brothers’ eyes. But in their desire to denounce the dirty/unsightly/smelly/chaotic/confusing things of the world, they skip past Paul’s prescription to think on the things that are true, as people will do when their concern is for a nice, safe place to escape to.
The problem, as Siri pointed out last time, is that writers don’t control their characters and situations. No novel conforms perfectly to its original outline. The breath of life in any great novel is always independent of the writer’s best intentions, and he might as well kill off the protagonist if he’s going to alter the plot to graft in incongruous behavior.
So I asked Siri to share what she thought Christian writers should do to fit within the requirements of the current market (and to be fair, I’m completely hi-jacking her for the purposes of this discussion. She’s simply too trusting if you ask me…).
Here are her "Big 4" Christian fiction parameters:
I’ve had a character "either need to swear at the top of my lungs or slam the door shut another 50 times." I’ve had a character admit that "I felt like swearing, but even that overwhelming urge couldn’t override a childhood’s worth of sermons and Sunday School." But no one has actually said a three or four or five letter word. The words ‘butt’ and ‘pee’ are apparently okay. At least with my publisher. (Mick: Well there’s another difference between Harvest House and Focus.)
2. Physical Relationships
Well, here’s the deal: most married couples enjoy marital relationships. In the literal, not the figurative, sense. (Mick, I’m trying really hard here to be sure your blog makes it through the Internet filters.) I like to think if I write an easily-accessible hotel room into a manuscript, my amorous characters wouldn’t wait around for permission before they [section deleted]. (Mick: Just kidding. Siri’s comment was as pure as the driven snow.) This is one taboo that I have a hard time writing around. The measure of my success or failure in this area will be with Chateau of Echoes (coming from NavPress this fall). It’s still being edited. Maybe I can construct a writer’s workshop out of the sections we chop…a kind of ‘before’ and ‘after’ look at a manuscript.
With physical relationships, this is the guidance I’ve received: no getting undressed together. But thumbs-up for appropriate passion and intensity as long as the reader knows the characters are clothed and are respecting God and each other. If your manuscript were turned into a movie could you watch it with your mother? Okay, maybe not. How about your best friend?
Here’s my reaction at the end of my favorite movies:
Big heavy sigh.
Big sappy grin.
Where’s my husband? I want to give him a great big kiss!
If a reader had a reaction like that to one of my novels, I’d be pleased.
The reaction I wouldn’t want:
Furtive flipping through pages.
Covert glances around the room to see if anyone is watching.
Where’s that scene again? The one where…
For your characters to feel passion is okay. For the reader to get turned on because of a visceral reaction to your words is not. Makes sense, right? Because we all know that people really don’t buy porn magazines just for the articles. (Mick: Okay, another difference between Harvest authors and Focus’.)
Characters deal with this taboo for you. I don’t think anyone in the CBA has a problem with displaying the dark side of drinking. It’s when characters enjoy drinking that the controversy starts. I’ve had characters process their issues about drinking; I’ve had characters not even think there were any issues with drinking; I’ve had a character, processing her issues about drinking, ask a pastor in France what he thought about drinking. The important thing is to be true to your character. What does your character think about drinking? And once you decide, then write about it, or not, as the case may be. We can’t be embarrassed about our characters. If we are, it shows through.
4. Life Choices
This is an area where it’s easy to assume you know what your characters are going to do and say. And more than any other area, this is one in which your choice of publishing house is crucial. Some publishers don’t want mothers who work. Some publishers don’t want a story about someone who decides not to become a Christian. My publisher asked if I would re-consider the ending of Something Beyond the Sky. I said I would, but I also told them that the vast majority of Mormons who consider Christianity decide not to convert.
As Siri’s responses show, these are critical issues for any author to consider. How much are you willing to change, and can you in essence, tread the line between “authentic fiction” and fiction that fits the assumptions of the market?
Over the next few weeks, I want to focus some more on this distinction between controlling your characters and not controlling them, to see if we can’t gain some ground by educating people about the way in which “authentic fiction” is written. Feel free to pontificate and leave your comments about this as the inspiration comes.
Thanks to Siri and to all of you dedicated wordsmiths for making this emerging discussion possible.