Monday, February 2, 2009

Tying up Loose Ends

I once had an interesting conversation with an editor at a writer's conference regarding the reluctance of some publishers to purchase manuscripts that don't tie up all the loose ends by the last page--books whose theology perhaps isn't explicit enough or that leave the final interpretation to the reader. Their mission statements charged the publishers to clearly communicate the gospel, and they rightly measured each submission against this criteria.

I polled the web sites of the major publishing houses and found a wide spectrum of mission statements. Some were very general and focused on well written books that incorporate Christian values and others specifically mentioned pointing the reader to Christ. All of the mission statements communicated a desire to responsibly uphold the high calling entrusted to them.

So, what is the author's responsibility to communicate the message of the gospel? Does the author lead the reader to a carefully crafted conclusion with no loose ends, or enter into a trust agreement that the Spirit will work through the art?

I tend to lean toward trust, I think. All of our loose ends in life are not tied up--sometimes, not even in our lifetimes. To say to the reader that they could be seems incredibly patronizing, and we do not want to appear false. But life is a journey, and we can impress on the reader that there is hope in the One who travels with us in spite of our loose ends.


Kathleen Popa said...

I tend to side with you, Debbie. I've read some great novels that include what I would call "altar calls," but but with some exceptions, those altar calls are rarely the best part of the story. Why is that?

The answer I've found for myself is that it's not often a short walk to the altar. Like you say, it's a journey, and one, I might add, that continues after we rise from our knees.

I like to think that if I work my own journey out on the page, then I share something intimate and true with the reader, without presuming to lead.

Steve G said...

Hi Debbie,

I don't think tying everything up and explaining everything isn't only patronizing, but it doesn't respect the reader. In the same way the church can't force conversions or acceptance of its message, life is what it is and the individual is left with choices.

In our church after the sermon, the pastor sits on a stool in front of the congregation and asks for feedback, reactions, and questions. That can't be done in a novel, but how boring is it to tell everything?

Who is reading Christian books? I expect Christians - so the Gospel is not the priority, but growth and issues of surrender to God.

A better question is, "What kind of book could I write that a non-Christian would pick up, and then KEEP reading?" I think the starting point would be to understand that one book, any book, is just a starting point (or a middle point) in an ongoing conversation with people and other media about Jesus. I don't have to do it all in one book, but God can take a nugget of truth in my book, one from yours, throw in a Godly neighbour and a radio show or podcast sermon or two, and bring a person to Himself.

SO, tell the message God has given you in as best a way as you can, and find the publisher that works with that.

Word verification - phorset: A word used by a phonetics teacher encouraging someone who is sticking a square peg in a round hole.

Anonymous said...

Good topic, Debbie. I think the answer is purely subjective, depending on the publisher and the reader. My two released novels leave many loose ends, by design, and I've been praised for that by both editors and readers.

I wholly confer with Katy and Steve. The lives we live are a journey. The stories we tell begin and leave off somewhere along the course of that journey. Notice I didn't say end, I said leave off. For our characters' stories continue, but without any further narration from us. The many and varied issues of all the people in my life don't culminate in a tidy package on one given day. Nor should they in the lives of my characters. "Happily ever after" is for fairy tales, and I don't write fairy tales.

I'm one voice among the many voices my reader will hear on her journey of life. I will speak truth that will hopefully shine a light on the One who is the Truth, and that truth will be a thread she can weave into her tapestry of experience. Then, as you so beautifully say, trust the Holy Spirit to work through the art.

Steve, I'm loving your word verification definitions! Today's is wonderful! (Oh, and your Canadian/British spelling of words like favourite). We Yanks leave out the u.

Nichole Osborn said...

This is a great topic. I have to agree with Steve mostly, but my mother and mother-law both are not Christian and both read Christian books. Because of that I try to find books for them that the Gospel is preached and is clear. I agree Christian books are read mostly by Christian readers, but there are non-Christians who read them, too.

Patti Hill said...

I think a novel is the beginning of a dream. By leaving a few loose ends, we give the reader a chance to keep dreaming.

Now, what am I going to say on Friday? Yikes!

Kathleen Popa said...

Wow, Patti. That was nicely put. Maybe Friday you'll expand on that?

Anonymous said...

I just read an excellent article called His Novel Idea (The point of good fiction is not theory but storytelling), in The Weekly Standard of all places, by Edwin M. Yoder Jr. that beautifully expresses the point I wanted to make earlier about life being a journey and that our stories only tell a portion of that journey. Yoder is reviewing a book by James Wood titled How Fiction Works and says this about the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov: "Chekhov neither moralizes nor editorializes, and his stories often begin and end at arbitrary points of time, as if life were a long loaf that one slices here and there at random..." I love that.

Nichole Osborn said...

I agree with the loose ends. I love the quote, Sharon!

Bonnie Grove said...

Yes, yes, yes, a portion of the journey! I agree all we can hope to do is shine light on a limited circumference, a sliver of a bigger picture, a rambling life.

But - oh please let us not forget that leaving things unsaid is not an excuse for not ending at all. Novels cannot peter off, sputter to a hault mid thought - they must end.

Even if threads dangle the reader must be able to acknowledge they have, indeed, reached the end of something. There must be a sense of completion - of having arrived somewhere, even if temporarily.

We must choose the correct threads to smip and tie and only a rare and perfect few to let loose.

Steve: Your point about what kind of book a non-Christian would pick up and read is a good one. We'll be exploring that with an editor from a major publishing company in the months to come.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I thought I had been pretty obvious about the future of one couple in my book--a little loose end--until a woman stopped me at church and asked, "Do they get married? I have to know." I said, "Well, what do you think?" and she almost shouted at me. "NO, I have to know. Do they get married or not?" I said yes, I thought they did. So, while I'd like to think that people are intuitive, I guess some readers don't have a lot of experience with loose ends.

Anonymous said...

Bonnie, I couldn't agree more that the story must end (though not everything tied up in a nice little bow), and not dangle. No dangling, please.

Debbie, I've had the same kind of experience. In fact, just last week a reader asked me, "So, IS Ian Beckwith gay??" I had to laugh.

Anonymous said...
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Unknown said...

I love the quote from St. Francis of Assisi --"Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words."

He was saying that acting out the principles of truth is foundational, and explanations secondary. When I read a novel, I want to see the characters struggle with the same dilemmas I have in my Christian life and find reasons to overcome.

Here's an admittedly unlikely example. My husband and I have had scores of people live with us over our 35 years of marriage. Once we had an unusually self-focused and suddenly-homeless new Christian whom I was disciplining with us. She irritated the whole family. But one night I saw the movie "With Honors," which certainly has no overt Christian theme. It's about a homeless man who manipulates some Harvard students to take him in. It pierced my heart.

I realized that I needed to take a stand to help this woman -- not only to continue to give her housing for a while because she truly needed it, but to help her achieve some of Christ's virtues that would make her better company to everyone.

So -- the movie preached the Gospel, and used few words to do it. That, for me, became an example of how the Spirit does the same. And I've taken that example to heart.

Latayne C Scott

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I agree, Latayne. Our group of friends has kicked around the idea of watching movies that have communicated the gospel or the character of God without being labeled Christian and having frank discussions afterward. Your post reminded me of that. I think the only thing stopping us is the time involved.

Anonymous said...

Latayne: Not unlikely at all. In that situation you perfectly demonstrated what St. Francis said about living out the gospel. I took special note of your comment: "When I read a novel, I want to see the characters struggle with the same dilemmas I have in my Christian life and find reasons to overcome." That last part is the key. I've made myself a notecard with your comment on it, to remind myself "That's why I write!"

Unknown said...

Reader alert: Pay no attention to the nice things Sharon says about me. She's just deferring to me because I'm, well, the oldest.

Debbie, I like your group discussion of movies idea. I actually did that a couple of time in our congregation-- just announced that we were having a girls' night out to go see a movie, and then we met at a coffee shop where I had some handouts with questions about how to assess the "message" of the movie. (And it wasn't a "Christian" movie, either.) Some of the women, especially young mothers, were so hungry for an opportunity to use their minds in that kind of a setting.

BTW, I often surprise people when I say that the 1988 movie Dangerous Liaisons is one of the most moral movies I have ever seen. I could say the same about Grand Torino. Both movies allow the viewer to make some of the same moral compromises as the characters, and then feel the sickness of the results.

For those same reasons, I believe that Christian fiction doesn't have to be sanitized. The Holy Spirit as author didn't pull any punches in the book of Judges, for instance. Some of the most horrific stories (cutting a woman's body up into pieces and sending them to one's neighbors, for instance) teach us more about depravity than all the commandments against it.

Kathleen Popa said...

Okay, if Latayne can go out on a limb, I'll go out on one of my own.

One of my favorite films is Copying Beethoven. This is hard to admit, because almost nobody besides me likes it. Just check out the ratings. They nudge into the negative numbers.

But to my mind, besides being immensely entertaining (perhaps I shouldn't admit that), the film says so much about the relationship between our art and our struggle with God, so much about the nature of the love of God. All without ever spelling out exactly what it is doing.

Really love that film.

Bonnie Grove said...

Okay, I'll be the stick in the mud!

It's fine to say a movie like Dangerous Liaisons (which I liked very much) is "moral". It is. BUT it is a mistake to to say that these movies will, by benefit of being moral (or having a moral) point people toward Christ.

We tend to see the world through the filter of our belief systems. So, if I were a good Hindu and watched that movie, I could pull out elements (or themes) that I believe agreed with my Hindu sensibilities (if not my actual faith).

While I agree that God uses all sorts of thing/people/arts/experiences to bring humanity to Himself, I would stop short of saying that anything that doesn't offend my moral sensabilities is "Christian".

It is "moral", and I like it, and agree with it, and can relate my religious beliefs to it's message. Period. Full stop.

I also liked Spanglish for the same reason. :)

Anonymous said...

Bonnie brings up a very good point about filters. We live in a society very different from the ones our parents grew up in. While "morality" a generation or two ago might have had a more "Christian" connotation, it's safe to say that isn't necessarily the case anymore. There are very moral people with faiths other than Christianity or even no faith at all.

That brings us to the question, why do we write? I mean specifically Latayne, and Bonnie, Katy, Debbie, Patti and me? Why do we write? I'd like that to be a topic we discuss in the near future. But for now I'll just say that I, personally, need to remember that not all filters have the same color lens that mine has. And I need to keep that in mind when I write.