Category Archives: Christian critical reviewing

Pick a Fight You’re Willing to Lose

Dear Strong Christian,

How much I’d like to fight with you.

Charlotte fighting

But I suppose the truth is, I’m not that concerned. I know you’ll be fine in time, when life does its work and then God does his. I don’t need you to agree with me, and I don’t care about disagreement. I’m not sure what happened, but when did we start to think Christians all have to agree in order to love and find common ground?

I know there are more important matters than this. I’m not very high on the list of people whose opinions matter and sway others. Nor do I wish to be. I have a quiet life and a simple story to share. I don’t want that to change. I have enjoyable, behind-the-scenes book work to do.

Trying to convince people–even publishers, agents and writers in CBA–of my point is pointless. I do enjoy discussion, though often debates don’t appeal because competition implies a winner and a loser and that opposes my gospel.

It’s my gospel because who can say if it’s yours, however great our hope may be? Real life is not so cut and dry.

This post pretty much states my “position,” if I have one. And the blogosphere could do well to remember it:

Striving for answers is foolishness beyond the one Jesus offered. There are many things he didn’t talk about that get a lot of people upset. They wish so much he’d said more, but they’re missing the ones he did say. Make peace and you’re blessed. Accept suffering for another’s sake. When we’re focused on being right, too often we’re wrong. So many of his “answers” focused us on the bigger questions—it’s as though he’s saying, “I know it’s impossible, so what will you do with what I did say about trusting me?” Is that putting words into his mouth?

He wasn’t merely evasive; he was patient and unrelenting. But he knew answers too often barricade the high and the low, the insiders and the outsiders, and his work was leveling all of that out. He was okay appearing wrong. Appearing weak.

Who will be that hero?

A Long Obedience In the Same Direction

“The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is . . . that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.” -Nietsche

imagesIn the flood of new books that come out every day, it’s easy to forget there is life we’ve been longing for in those we somehow missed over 30 years ago. But Eugene Peterson has reformed the way I read the Psalms:

“A person has to be thoroughly disgusted with the way things are to find the motivation to set out on the Christian way. As long as we think that the next election might eliminate crime and establish justice or another scientific breakthrough might save the environment or another pay raise might push us over the edge of anxiety into a life of tranquility, we are not likely to risk the arduous uncertainties of the life of faith. A person has to get fed up with the ways of the world before he, before she, acquires an appetite for the world of grace. Psalm 120 is the song of such a person, sick with the lies and crippled with the hate, a person doubled up in pain over what is going on in the world…”

If you’re a no-nonsense, foundational kind of soul who longs to reestablish the fundamental things, check out A Long Obedience In the Same Direction

The Power of Critique

So critique groups. Good or bad?

It's like asking if publishing is good or if a book is good. Of course the answer's yes and no. Like everything else. It always depends on the people in them.

And just like everything else, what you get out of them is largely dependent on what you bring to them. Know someone who didn't like The Shack? Maybe their theology caused them to bring something different to it than someone without that filter. The same people are now angry at Rob Bell for Love Wins even though it's nothing Don Miller didn't say before, a little differently, maybe less pointedly in Blue Like Jazz.

But after I experienced disillusionment as a 19-year-old kid, I wondered if disappointment with God is a universal, that necessary moment when your eyes open and your innocence falls away and you know that God is not always going to save you from the worst attrocities life may bring. Everyone gets to learn this eventually. Even believers and the faithful. Life happens. And the point is to recognize that even still, God is always good.

So I believe it's a "writer fundamental" that what I'm able to bring to my writing is largely dependent on my willingness to accept that life will bring pain. And this is not bad, not to be fought off, but embraced as the gift it is. Fear of pain is instinctual, elemental–those who deny it, deny the very thrust of existence. But facing the fear of that pain, peacefully but forcefully, is at least one essential benefit a good critique group can offer.

This week, I'm working with one of my favorite future authors who's writing a genre western romance (what? That's not strange–one of my favorite books is Redeeming Love. Okay, maybe it's strange). I've encouraged her to trust her abilities, to let herself feel the fear of failure and to courageously believe in her inevitable success anyway. At the OCCWF conference a couple weeks ago, author Simon Tolkien claimed that a big part of his grandfather's success was because he had spent years studying language–words, their meanings and origins–and this allowed him to know how his characters spoke and how that defined them. 

I'd argue that this is what every author has to do–study words, learn, and respect that training. And a good critique group encourages a healthy respect for the symbols of words, their meanings, listening for where your "translation" is inaccurate or not revelatory enough.

Does this involve fear? Yes. But can you face it with courage?

Some authors discredit critiques, which is understandable. It's nearly impossible to find a good group that understands what critiques are and consistently applies their full attention and effort to it. It's often hopelessly idealistic to believe you can find an honest, dedicated, knowledgable group of writers who can regularly meet to thoroughly discuss your work. Especially within 30 miles of you.

Maybe they don't have to be within 30 miles.

A professional editor knows how to fix the things that need fixing. And a good critique group can point those things out. Where it's slow, redundant, and even not fully developed yet, a critiquer who's well-read, knows you, and appreciates the process of writing (through having done it themselves and having read the best books on craft) is worth a fortune. Professional agents are good readers as well, though until you've risen in stature a bit, you won't likely be told what isn't working. You need someone you can trust, who gets both what you're trying to do and what you need to do to pull it off and get peple talking. This could cost you a bit out of pocket. But that's why I started YWG and it's proving that just like a great book, what's truly valuable doesn't have to cost what it's really worth. Is it worth it to you? I don't know. It's not perfect and there's work involved. But I do think it's worth it to check it out–there's no charge to read the critiques.

Pro authors know early feedback is the best "promotional" money you can spend. But what can't a good critique do? It can't replace the need for a copy editor who will look for grammar mistakes, misspellings, wrong words, weak constructions, inconsistent elements like Suzy being 9 on page 4 and 12 on page 37. Critique groups shouldn't waste time on the minor things until the big things have been addressed. So authors, do not skip this step or you will suffer the consequences. If you're a good student of language, you'll save money when it comes time to hire a copyeditor. 

But just like the earlier stages, this one can be painful. It's hard to give up the pieces of ourselves that are holding us back. We fight for our ignorance and call it personality, style, artistic license. Most often, it's plain prideful stupidity. Sure, readers will accept your incomplete sentences. Even love them. But respect the refinement process. It's not just making your book better, it's making you better as well. And that's the big point.

The artist who demands he has nothing to learn soon finds he has nothing to say.

A powerful critique group is about growth, a shared journey of trust, fear, empathy, hope, and faith. It's powerful because it's built on relationships over rules, on embracing acceptance and peace amidst the striving for what's better. I have been in a few of them in my lifetime, and I can promise you the people you learn to write with will remain lifelong friends.

It's about being your vulnerable, wart-covered self and finding it accepted and improved. And as a bonus, you get to discover the true meaning of gratitude.

One of my critique partners, Rob Stennett has a book releasing today called Homemade Haunting. (I know. I'm a lucky dude.) Rob is a one-of-a-kind genius with character comedy and this time he mixed it into a thriller and asked "If evil is real, what happens when someone doesn't have the only true weapon against it?" If you think it was easy to blend comedy with such a serious subject, you're dreaming. But Rob figured it out and critiques played a hand in that. I'm sure he'd be happy to tell you if you asked. Anyway, get the book (it's only $10), read it and ask yourself how many people it really takes to finish a great book.

On Christian Book Reviews

I’m nearly done with the book, and I’ll have some fun things to report in conjunction with that soon, so stay tuned. I haven’t forgetten my pledge.

But I want to talk a bit more about this subject of the purpose of reviews, honest, reasoned, objective (inasmuchaspossible) commentary about author’s work. There’s been good discussion going on about this (including Mark’s recent proposition to eviscerate something.) What’s the purpose of offering a review of a creative endeavor? Is it merely the writer’s opinion? Is it to tear down the creator—or to build them up? Is it neither? What if it’s simply to give a rational prospective viewer/reader the benefit of a vicarious experience, a window into what to expect from the encounter with this particular imaginary representation?

No one wants bad reviews. But we don’t want bad books either. Unfortunately both are out there. And they’re going to continue sucking up people’s time, whether we like it or not. Bad reviews hurt authors. Bad reviews convince people not to buy the book. Even if the reviewer giving the bad review is not a reviewer with credentials, the book will sell a few less copies than it would have. This is at least subliminally intended behind every bad review. Limit the damage of the bad; expand the realization of the good. I gave Leif Petersen a good review because the guy frankly deserved it. I also wanted him to reach more readers with his amazing, well-written book. He obviously spent much time on his invention and it contains many elements that I find transcendent and sadly absent in much of today’s Christian fiction. Should I not give a good review and help him reach his audience in my small way? And should I not attempt to limit the damage of the books I consider to be having the opposite, negative effect on the marketplace, pulling it down into the commonplace and further marginalizing Christians to the fringe of culture? I would be remiss on both counts. My mind was made to divide the word of truth, to cast critical judgment on all of life, eyes open, aware, alive, responsive, contiually learning and deciding what is edifying and what is not of use.

But here is the fulcrum. There has never been a book published that someone can not find any use for whatsoever. Everyone gets something out of everything, don’t they? The worst books have positive reviews from someone, stories of changed perspectives, changed lives even. Some people love John Denver’s music, including my mother, who sang it to me as a child. I can’t find any use for it whatsoever. Am I wrong for my opinion? Am I wrong for sharing my opinion? I don’t hide the fact that if there’s something that’s the opposite of a Broncos fan, I’m it. Same goes for hockey, big dogs, trucks, sweet tea, banana candy, and a whole slew of things others might consider vital parts of their lives. Can we move beyond our preferences to respect each other and love the differences instead of needing to be the same all the time? What good would it be if we were all the same? That’s not living. I may be wrong about John Denver because he’s probably at God’s left hand right now singing Rocky Mountain High and interceding for his fans all over the world. But I can’t help the gut reaction I get to his music. Really I’ve tried.

I’m not sure why I’m going off about this. I suspect it’s been building a while now. We’ve been over 5 years in Colorado now, the sly idolatry that exists around local celebrities here, sometimes it seems as bad as Texas. John Elway included. Where does that pride come from? It’s just weird. But I think there’s a difference between stating our preferences and good book reviewing. Forget my prejudices and go back to the beginning of this blog for a moment and ask that question again. What is the purpose of offering a review on a creative endeavor?

I’d propose that book reviews, good or bad, need to offer something bigger than the reviewer’s personal taste about a work. That would suggest it’s intended to aspire to a level of objectivity that family and friends probably aren’t qualified to offer. And secondly, I think we’d hope the reviewer was honorable enough not to bring criticism of the authors themselves into the equation. This is more difficult to do for some than it is for others, and I think it requires a special skill and practice to learn to disassociate creator from created work. But as an ideal, honest book reviews should be motivated by the desire to propel good writing forward and impede bad writing from continuing. It is like any other component of publishing, a service to readers who desire to spend their time and money on good, worthwhile books. It does come down to motivation, once again, as I think more than one person has mentioned already. Ultimately, that’s what it all comes down to, and maybe holding to the Golden Rule in this context is actually the best solution when attempting to write reviews that balance honesty and objectivity in serving both writer and readers.