Friday, April 9, 2010


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Make Your Ideas Run the Vetting Gauntlet

In Monday’s post, Debbie expertly helped us identify sources for ideas. Wednesday, Katy helped us with the selection process with insights to help us evaluate the ideas as Lambs or Tygers. Today we’ll look at the vetting process.

In his business, my husband often vets potential employees. He looks at each one’s experience and abilities and salary requirements, and from those he determines if that interviewee is a good “fit” for his company.

In the same way, authors must vet ideas after they’ve been collected and evaluated. For a writer who is a Christian and/or someone who writes fiction which can be classified as Christian, this vetting of ideas must precede the actual writing.

(Let me interject here that a book or proposal will later again undergo a tango of vetting as the author searches for a potential agent or publisher. Once under consideration, an acquisitions editor and committee will vet the novel to determine if the “fit” is right there. But for this discussion, the vetting under consideration is the author’s vetting of her ideas.)

Here are some questions that can help an author vet potential ideas:

1) (I know I harp on this but this question is essential): Have I been called by God to write for publication? Am I sure writing this idea isn’t just for ego, to earn extra money, to cash in on a current trend?

2) Do I have something to say? Is this subject going to enhance anyone’s relationship with God, provoke self-examination, foster understanding, advance the reputation of the Lord Jesus, bring about peace and/or necessary change? (If your goal is to simply entertain the reader without using dirty words, perhaps you should do further evaluation.)

3) Do I have what it takes to stand behind this idea? If it’s controversial or stimulating or provocative – and all Christian writing should be at least two of the three of these – can I defend this idea as being true in an eternal sense?

4) Do I have, or am I willing to get training and feedback to acquire, the writing skills sufficient to write this so that it will bring glory to and not detract from the name of God?

5) Is this idea important enough that I am willing to write it in such a way as to disappear behind the idea?

6) Is this idea authentic in that it’s true to my experience (in other words, do I have the authority to write this)? Alternately, am I willing to faithfully research the topic if it is not completely my expertise?

7) Is this idea authentic to the reader – can I write it in such a way that it will resound with the reader?

8) Is this idea authentic to Scripture (which is the ultimate arbiter of authenticity both in the author and the reader)?

9) Would the world congratulate this idea? Why or why not?

Do you have other questions that should be on this list?

I know that some of my questions may seem harsh. But think how different the impact and reputation of Christian novels would have with the world, if no idea in the mind of a Christian writer would be published without passing through such a vetting gauntlet.

Just think.

17 comments:

Patti Hill said...

Wow, Latayne, you nailed it. These questions challenge me to the core. I'm definitely printing out the post.

Nicole said...

While I concur with these points, number two can be suspect to some:

"Do I have something to say? Is this subject going to enhance anyone’s relationship with God, provoke self-examination, foster understanding, advance the reputation of the Lord Jesus, bring about peace and/or necessary change? (If your goal is to simply entertain the reader without using dirty words, perhaps you should do further evaluation.)"

CBA produces novels which don't ever mention Jesus, throw out the God factor maybe once, dot with a mention of an occasional quick prayer, and, voila, a "Christian" novel that "entertains". However, within this framework some authors create opportunities to share their faith with the secular element via publicity that otherwise wouldn't exist.

I would modify number two to determine and understand what God is asking of you in your writing.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Wow, this is a tough gauntlet! I have to say, my initial reaction to number two was similar to Nicole's, especially since my current manuscript does seek to entertain without using dirty words. But as I thought about it further, even as I seek to entertain, my faith can't help but seep into the story and I hope that in the process of entertaining, future readers will see God in a new way and hopefully have an enhanced relationship with Him.

Carla Gade said...

I know some Christian fiction authors use their skills to create entertaining and wholesome Christian fiction, without necessarily trying to promote a spiritual theme. I don't think that is wrong and actually applaud these Christian writers for using their talent to the glory of God and to bless and encourage their readers, as may be in line with their gifts.

For me, however, I believe part of my particular calling as a Christian writer is to use my own spiritual gifts. Since one of my main gifts is teaching I find it natural for me to develop fiction with a spiritual premise that teaches, not preaches, through story. If the story guides the reader to examine their own lives and points them toward Christ and a closer relationship with Him I feel that my calling has been served in that story, to the glory of God. I feel that this is a ministry that I've been prepared for in so many ways. Other Christian writers may be pleased with that kind of outcome, but for me it is another opportunity to use the gifts that I have already been using during my life in other capacities.

Lataynne, it seems to me that one of your gifts is prophecy, as reflected in the nature of your books to illuminate spiritual truth so #two for you rings true to your particular calling, though it may not for others.

Thank you for running us through the gauntlet. We might all do well to pray about these very things.

Latayne C Scott said...

Okay, this is where you can begin (or continue) to dislike me, to think what I have written exemplifies some sort of snobbery or judgmentalism. But I’m going to tell you the truth.

As an author, I have my own set of peculiar weaknesses and personal sins. I am calling myself to the standards that I’m advocating. I fall short, but I keep myself accountable (and by being public, allow you to keep me accountable) to the nobility of the high calling of writing Christian works.

But I have also been three things other than an author. I have been a contest judge of writing for 30 years now. I have been a professional book reviewer of Christian books (had my own monthly column in a national magazine for several years and also reviewed for Christian Retailing and other magazines.) And I am and always have been a reader, a voracious reader.

Christian fiction does not have a good reputation among most nonbelievers and many believers. Why? What I have seen in those three capacities (judging, reviewing and reading) is that much of what has been published up to now perhaps never should have been. A good amount of "religious" fiction (if what I’m often asked to review or read in book clubs, for instance, is typical) is insipid, and it’s that because little in them demonstrates that the author was called to do the task, took the task and the reader seriously, had the purposes of Christ in mind, and/nor did it with excellence (regardless of the genre or subgenre).

Think of it this way: When a reader plunks down money and then gives you his or her undivided attention for three or more hours, you are receiving not just a compliment but a great responsibility. You get to do something important during that time!

I don’t know Nicole nor Carla nor Sarah’s work. I take them at their word about their motivations and intentions in writing, and I see their great concern for the craft. And I see why they have said what they said and in some areas I do agree. I am not responding to them personally but am adamant about this:

Writing something that is intended to carry the name of Christ is serious business. Even if it’s humor or romance or cozy anything, the author must take his or her charge seriously. If he or she is not willing to ask probing self-questions about intentions and seek excellence, such writing, I am convinced, is unlikely to have much-needed spiritual impact nor lasting value.

Nicole said...

Latayne, I write redemptive fiction, so I'm with you at the core of your argument. I agree.

However, I know devoted published Christians who proclaim their faith, but who write marginal--only in terms of real faith material--stories in CBA. They're quality writers who could be classified as writing "cross over" novels (a term I happen to detest).

Our motives, as you stated, should be led by the Spirit of God, but I know you would also agree that He moves us in different ways and places us in unique situations.

Arguing about quality writing in Christian fiction draws the literary snobs out of the wordwork and is hampered by extreme subjectivity. There's no question CBA fiction has dramatically improved in the last five years, and incredible quality can be found in it.

In my personal opinion off-hand references to faith dispersed throughout a story mean zero to me. I'd rather read a Vince Flynn novel where there's no pretension of "religion".

This is too just my opinion, but I think it's useless to write "for" anyone but the Lord. The audience gets determined after the story is written, after the characters have established who they are and marched down their life's journeys. Only God can save a soul, so to say we do or do not write for Christians is moot. God can use the strangest things to draw people to Himself. It has nothing to do with our "noble" efforts other than to be obedient to Him and let Him do the tough work.

I think we could all say we've read novels we thought were horribly written that somehow managed to have people raving about them and how much they were moved, touched, changed, et al. We don't get to decide for others.

It's God. All about Him.

Latayne C Scott said...

I've been troubled all day about this.

I can't do anything about what's been published in the past -- except, of course, do my best to promote the excellent Christian writers I see: not only my fellow NovelMatters ladies but the Susan Meissners and Joy Jordan Lakes and Buechners and many more, far too many to list.

I can't change the past. But I can irritate and challenge the writers who read this blog. I can tell them the truth about the way Christian fiction is perceived, and ask them to step up to the task.

What can ennoble? What is eternally true? What brings the reader closer to God? That is the essence of the question, "Do I have something to say?" and its implications.

ALL Christian fiction should be redemptive: That is, it should leave the reader closer to God than it found her. We writers can't settle for being merely neutral influences.

Please don't read what I've said in my vetting questions as judging writers of the past. All writing is hard work, and what's done is done.

Please do read my plea to you who write now: Seek inspiration, seek excellence, seek eternal truth, seek to ennoble your reader.

Nicole said...

Just one more thought here, Latayne.

"I can tell them the truth about the way Christian fiction is perceived, and ask them to step up to the task."

I've found that the Christians who criticize CBA fiction have read very little, if any, of it. They don't know the authors you mentioned or Tosca Lee, Lisa Samson, Steven James, Chris Fabry, etc. They might've read one or two novels from a popular CBA author and decided all of it was drivel. And most non-Christians have zero motivation to pick up a Christian novel, the majority of them not wanting anything to do with a novel centered on Christ whether obviously or opaquely and will criticize it all as being "preachy" without even reading it. Rarely are their evaluations, accurate or not, valid for most of CBA fiction simply because unbelievers are illiterate in most of it.

Latayne C Scott said...

Nicole and Sarah, you both made important points about the fact that a writer's Christianity has to be the foundation or font from which she writes, not a tacked-on addition that everyone -- believer or nonbeliever alike-- sees as artificial and manipulative.
Thank you.

Latayne C Scott said...

Carla, you gave a thoughtful response. I've thought long and hard about the concept of being called to write (as a form of ministry.)

I've tied this to an informal study I did of the call of Jeremiah and how his calling showed a structure that's all over Scripture: the idea that faith is experienced by all of us in three phases.

You can download this study (free) at
http://www.latayne.com/uploads/2010/04/Call-of-Jeremiah.pdf

Here's the point: Just think how much easier writing should be if we are called to do it! Because a call from God necessitates His enabling you to accomplish what He's called you to!

Steve G said...

Hey, thought I would put in my 2 cents.

1) Have I been called by God to write for publication? This is always a good place to start, not just with writing, but what we do with our day job (if it isn't writing). It is the place to start for even our hobbies. Consider Eric Liddel and his running.

2) Is this subject going to enhance anyone’s relationship with God…? (If your goal is to simply entertain the reader without using dirty words, perhaps you should do further evaluation.) Yes... and no. There is a place for good, clean entertainment. Good, clean writing, or art, or drama, or music does point to God; it just doesn't hit you over the head with the message. Can you glorify God as a garbageperson? Of course - whatever you do, do it heartily as for the Lord. Is writing fiction a higher calling in the body of Christ than the guy who has the "armpit" position? Of course not. Much if not most of the time encouragement is the purpose. Paul wrote much about encouragement. The biggest issue for the writer is intent (and yes, some people are called to make money so they can give it away). The issue for the reader is "all things are lawful, but not all are good".

3) Do I have what it takes to stand behind this idea? If it’s controversial or stimulating or provocative – and all Christian writing should be at least two of the three of these – can I defend this idea as being true in an eternal sense? This goes a bit far, partially because you only use three points of reference and say it has to be 2 of them. Philippians 4:8 has a different set of criteria, things like purity and truth and excellence and loveliness. Those are good things to dwell on too.

4) Do I have, or am I willing to get training and feedback to acquire, the writing skills sufficient to write this so that it will bring glory to and not detract from the name of God? Absolutely we need to put out our best, and if our best isn't up to snuff we need to keep working at it. This goes with doing everything heartily. Of course you also take into the sense that God uses the foolish things of this world often, and also that gifting flows in and around our lives. God calls us each in our uniqueness and wants to use us. Does that mean we have to be a writer? No. You are correct when you say we need to evaluate our motives.

5) Is this idea important enough that I am willing to write it in such a way as to disappear behind the idea? Except for when we need to help market the book and develop our brand. We let our writing glorify God, but also do what we can to let it reach as many people as possible. This means going to the people (marketing) and not just waiting for them to come to us (or the store).

6) Is this idea authentic in that it’s true to my experience? Again, your focus is a bit skewed. It is not just based on ourselves and our experience, but on our experience of God's love and grace. That is what we really need to communicate. If we are going to write our best, yes we do need to speak from a place of knowledge, though not necessarily firsthand experience. Non-fiction demands more of this, fiction can get away with, well, fiction, if it is written well.

Steve G said...

7) Is this idea authentic to the reader – can I write it in such a way that it will resound with the reader? We need to know our market. We also have to pull our thoughts out of our own context and see a broader world, a bigger picture. This is about being a better writer. It is also about not just writing a message - do non-fiction if that is what you have to say.

8) Is this idea authentic to Scripture? Themes of grace and redemption, of hope and love - those are authentic to Scripture and can be applied in many, many ways. As many individuals there are in the world, so are the variations of God’s grace.

9) Would the world congratulate this idea? Why or why not? This one I don't get. We don't write to get congratulated by the world. If you pursue that, you may get it, but it will leave you empty in the end. If you love the world, the love of the Father isn't in you. I couldn’t care less for the world’s congratulations.

This list is to help us decide if our “idea” is suitable for the Christian Market (which is different than if we were trying to discover the market God wants us to write in - that is another whole different topic). I think you could make a simpler list for vetting, but also develop another list for writing the best fiction possible. The comment section tends to travel in that direction. It doesn’t work to put them together in one place. I think you also need to talk about the CBA as a market at some point.

What is on the top 50 list of CBA? If we are called to the Great Commission (and we all are in general), how are we doing with our fiction? Do we have the whole gamut from books appealing to those far-away from God through to those which challenge leadership, or does the CBA focus, like so many churches, on a narrow band of growth where the most and easiest money is? Is this the niche for Christian fiction? We write for the aging traditional church that still tithes and buys books. If we want to read equipping and leadership stuff we have to go to non-fiction. We also don’t write for the non-Christian in the CBA. Perhaps we have boxed ourselves in too tight in our Christian Market, rather than allowing more freedom of expression of the Grace of God.

Steve G said...

Here's the point: Just think how much easier writing should be if we are called to do it! Because a call from God necessitates His enabling you to accomplish what He's called you to!

Yes and no. What do you mean by "easier". Acceptance by people? Financial problems solved? No achy muscles? A great marriage? No persecution? Consider what Paul went through in his experience of working in his gifting as an apostle - beatings, shipwrecks, etc.

How do we know we are called? Many people were very specifically called, others more generally. How do we know we are called to write? As soon as you make this list, I bet someone will add something else... Life's like that ;)

Latayne C Scott said...

Yipes. I am so happy to engage some of Steve G's questions and want to do them justice but have limited time because of an upcoming trip. Let me begin by a couple of overall responses.

First of all, I'm wondering if I led the discussion astray by not insisting that we go back and define what the end result of the story ideas would be. In other words, I should have said we were talking only about novels, and of course focused on the kinds of novels that we six women write -- upmarket fiction that is Christian in the sense that it is either published by a Christian publisher and/or written from a clearly-identifiable Biblical worldview and/or ________. (See how hard it is to even identify Christian upmarket fiction?)

Secondly, another thing I didn't mention is that I've taught writing at two universities in seminar settings. What I've learned, judging from the reaction of people who pay money to learn about "Christian writing." is that most people want to know the mechanics and the marketing aspects without ever asking any of the kinds of vetting questions I posed. (It apparently never occurred to most to even consider such thoughts.)

I respect Steve because I know he prays for all of us NM ladies and he's thought through some of these things. So in the next comment section I'm going to try to address some of the things he said.

Latayne C Scott said...

I'm wondering if Steve's points one and two have slipped under the wire of not focusing on upmarket Christian fiction writers. And also because I am going through a inner moral battle about my own marketing efforts, I didn't think of disappearing behind the ideas in regard to marketing. I was thinking of the goal of so engaging the reader that they are conscious of the words I write and not letting my personality get in the way. But you're right, Steve, if it regards marketing.

That was a very good point about the passage from Philippians. I had in mind what the Hebrews writer said about God's word being sharp and active and incisive, even to the point of cutting to the quick. I want my words to be like that. But there is a need for the less surgical ones, too. (And I know that Nicole and Carla and Sarah were agreeing with you, Steve.)

I'm going to skip down to the one about the world congratulating our writing. I left that issue open to two interpretations deliberately. In general, most of what the world would congratulate and pay for is not Christian. (Our world is sick.) Our goal as upmarket Christian fiction writers, I believe, is to make our writing of such excellent quality that the world will be compelled to read ideas they would normally not engage much less congratulate -- those which are contrary to the sinful nature and separate them from God. (One of my favorite books of all time is Roaring Lambs, which challenges Christian authors and artists to engage the world in such a manner.)

Excellent writing and honest address of troubling issues-- this they will congratulate. This can be done. Dostoyevsky did it. CS Lewis did it. Paul Bunyan did it. Pearl S. Buck did it. Madeleine L'Engle and Lew Wallace did it. (I'm choosing all authors from the past so as not to leave out any contemporary authors.)

But I am convinced of this: All of these writers could have answered vetting questions even more harsh than mine. What they wrote endures.

One more comment and I'll let this settle.

Latayne C Scott said...

Final comment (whew!)

Oh, absolutely it is easier to write when you've been called to do it, because as I said, if God gives you a task HE enables you to do it. In fact, as the Jeremiah study I referenced above in my response to Carla shows, a calling from God inherently means He is involved: in contravening those things that would prevent you from doing what He purposed (see Psalm 124), in giving ways of escape from error (1 Corinthians 10:13). in enabling us to follow the call (Joshua 1:9).

That doesn't mean there won't be obstacles to writing. But I'll take supernatural help any day of the week!

All of the comments have made me think. From many of them, I'm hearing you say that some of the vetting questions missed the mark. You are sharpening my iron and I am grateful. I would love it if we could each take all the vetting questions and comments and do as Carla suggested: really put some prayerful time into thinking about what they mean for each of us.

AquaJane said...

What a fascinating dialog you've stimulated, Latayne. There's no hitting the Escape key after reading this post! I remember feeling convicted on your points during the writing of my first novel; now, writing the sequel, I'm bumping into these same questions. (This, plus your use of the word "gauntlet," calls up a picture from the mid-1990s movie First Knight when Richard Gere "runs the gauntlet.") Writing a novel involves a lot of decisions, best guided by the answers to your questions. Writing a novel for the glory of our Lord Jesus is best done by checking motivations against your list.

I enjoyed chatting with you and Patti this evening. Hope God blesses you both with more than you could ask or imagine from the Festival of Faith and Writing.