Friday, December 2, 2011

Swift, Muddy Waters

Readers say they want reality. Publishers say too much reality is a downer and downers don’t sell. They say people who are in the midst of debt, depression, bankruptcy and loss don’t want to read heavy topics. Readers need something distracting and uplifting and the sales numbers bear it out. So we try to tell our stories in positive, uplifting ways but if the story subject is heavy to begin with, how do you even market the book? How do your write back cover copy that conveys both realism and hope – something that will make readers want to take a chance?

How much reality do people really want?

During the 30s, Hollywood produced movies like Gone with the Wind, Wizard of Oz, Snow White, Captains Courageous, and Stagecoach to distract the public from the problems of the Great Depression. Escapism. These stories couched realism in fancy. A woman survives the Civil War, a girl learns she has power over her situations and another runs from her dysfunctional family. A boy learns what it takes to be a man, and a man becomes a hero. Let’s face it, these are great stories, regardless of the financial climate.

Latayne and Patti led us into some great discussions on authentic writing this week, and many of you shared from deep places in your lives. So much potential for great storytelling! And while there are wonderful, authentic stories in the Christian market that require us to wade with the protagonist through swift, muddy waters to the shores of spiritual growth, there are others that simply distract us from our problems for awhile. A bit of escapism is okay, too.

For those of us who prefer the swift, muddy waters, it is quite possible that we are not the target audience of Christian fiction. If so, where does that leave us as readers and writers? Tell us what you think.


Jennifer Williams said...

As a reader I stayed away from what was considered christian fiction for a long time. I would try a book now and then, but honestly they were always just so sappy and unreal to me.To me escapism is seeing a life with all it's real trouble's and how somebody else either pulled through or did not. I know Jesus didn't confine himself to a nice safe village where everyone worked as a family. He went out among the sick and crying. To me a good story is that Christ stopped to talk to an adulterous woman and died beside a thief. As a writer I am seeing so much more good Christian fiction now,so that gives me hope that I can write something spiritual yet not confining to a man made perception of what a Christian life looks like.

Lynn Dean said...

Great post, Debbie! And a great answer from Jennifer. I agree!

I stayed away from Christian fiction for years because the stories seemed predictable and sanitized--"fluffy." When I began to write, I heard one editor caution against "anything too serious" saying "Christian women want something light and sweet to read before bedtime." (That would certainly put ME to sleep.)

I believe faith has to be more than a pleasant veneer glossing over the rough realities. I look for stories that soak deep into the grain of my life and leave me changed for the better. That's the type of story I aim to write. I think it's possible to write deeply without alienating our audience.

Remember The Waltons? Sweet and uplifting, but each episode had a message worth remembering. And if such stories won't sell in CBA? I've never been convinced about the segregation of Christian and secular literature. C.S. Lewis, Tolkein, and others brought light and salt to general audiences and were well received on the basis of their superior talent. I think there's still a place for that.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

I have several friends who aren't Christian. They think that we're all sunshine and puppies. That nothing bad ever happens in our more than wholesome lives. And, because of that misconception, they don't think they could ever come to church. The Jesus of the happy, Kum Ba Yah singing, pure people would never want them. It's a lot of work trying to show them who we are. Humans with struggles and temptations and leaning on the strength and grace of Jesus. If all they see is fiction from us the reflects happy go lucky lives, they'll never understand that they belong with us.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh, and, yes, they will read our fiction if it's well written and compelling...and not preachy.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Thanks, Jennifer, for your observations. You bring up some good points.
Lynn, there certainly is a market for the kind of light and sweet books that are good bedtime reads. Nothing wrong with that unless that's the only choice for people seeking answers. I'm reading Marilyn Robinson's "Home" right now and one of the main characters is deeply struggling with whether or not he is 'predestined' to be the black sheep or whether he can change. Good stuff that leaves you pondering life.
Susie, it's amazing to me that people would think Christians have life easy. What a concept! The only easier thing about it is that God goes through it with us and knows the way.
Keep up the non-preachy writing, ladies. :)

Wendy Paine Miller said...


Have a great weekend ladies. I think about the questions raised in this post often.
~ Wendy

Bonnie Grove said...

I agree that there is a place for the fun read. I guess I'm one of those people who actually think "deep" stuff IS fun.

I'm so glad you're enjoying HOME, Debbie. Every page is a wonder to behold.

I'll take a meaty book every time. More to romp around in. :)

Megan Sayer said...

Where does that leave us as readers and writers? That's such a good question Debbie.
I was on Goodreads last night searching through the reviews of some of my all-time favourite books, the books that help me understand who I am, books that I'd enter a burning house for (almost)and...people hated them! Most of the reviews were really negative for each of the books I searched. And books that I thought were generally okay, nice enough but would get rid of after a few years, people raved about how wonderful they are!
I logged off, feeling awfully like an outsider, and that I was obviously totally "wrong" in too many ways.
Now this post! Debbie you reminded me of being the kid in school couldn't do certain things that same way as other kids because of a serious and "rare" handicap I possess...I'm left-handed. Usually the only leftie in my class, and certainly always the only leftie in Tennis classes. Seriously, only 10% of the population suffer from lefthandedness.
Yes. Only A FEW HUNDRED MILLION people. So "rare"!
Sorry, I'm ranting. I'm just sick of being the "different" reader, who enjoys difficult books. Sometimes I think our reading circles (or what the publishers look at, anyway) are all the right-handed kids.
Other - different - readers are out there. We just need to know how to find them!

Sara said...

I think that in part that it leaves us needing to re-label Christian fiction. "Religious Fiction" perhaps, or "Inspirational Fiction." The labels do leave both readers and writers confused as to why stories that wrestle with the hard places of faith don't fit in with those stories that are labeled "Christian."

I certainly like a nice bit of escapism, though I prefer secular fantasy/sci-fi to religious romance. The trick is how to capture the hopefulness and joy that we're promised with Revelation coming while being realistic about just how hard it can be sometimes. People are in desperate need of true gospel hope--it's the job of writers to offer it. But the gospel speaks to us as people in desperate need of salvation . . . stories about people who God likes because they're already so ducky wonderful, who don't really need Jesus to save them, don't seem very Christian to me.

Anonymous said...

After years of living through sexual abuse and domestic violence I realised I was unable to process my own feelings. I often read books with these things as a subject matter because they help me to understand how I feel and why.
I don't know if this is normal or not, but that's why I read these books.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Megan, you're in good company. :)
Sara, I also enjoy science fiction but I'm really selective because I'm a big chicken. I've had to put books down because they gave me bad dreams.
Anonymous, thanks for sharing about what books do for you. It makes perfect sense and it sounds like you may get some peace of mind through them. Hope so.

Sara said...

Debbie--I think that sometimes I can process a bit of the darkness easier with the remove of reality. I can keep track of the fact that a Balrog of Morgath isn't real--it's the stories of real sexual assault or child abuse that keep me up with nightmares. And yet those are the stories that Christian writers need to be able to write and the people churches need to be embracing. The responsibility of writers is to figure out how to get people how to understand in their gut that horrible as sin can be, it's still just a slimy parasite, but that the love of God is bigger, realer, deeper, and more worthy of our time and focus.

Nicole said...

Some CBA publishers and professionals refuse to step beyond their small target market. This is who they think the majority of Christian readers are. While it's an acceptable number that has sustained their market, they miss so many of us with those target novels.

We do have more published authors now in CBA who do not adhere to the strict regimen of fluff, squeaky clean, predictable, and formulaic, and I believe the number is expanding because of the sheer quality of these writers. But it's not easy to override the decisions, no matter how confined, of those who believe their market is etched in stone.

One reason for this is the shrillness of those who object to anyone writing novels which they define as "un-Christian", etc. They've set themselves up as judges and juries for Christian Fiction. No one interferes with their reading objectives yet they must assert their opinions as to what others should read and write.

I write outside the strict box but not to the point of excluding the faith elements clearly worked into the story.

It's a slow moving - and stubborn -machine, but some authors are making it impossible not to expand this small target audience and appeal to the rest of the viable market.

Glenda Parker Fiction Writer said...

I don't think most women want the light fluff stuff. I read and write stories about everyday problems and how God can get us through. I think people want answers and hope.

Glenda Parker

Heather Marsten said...

As with all of life, balance is important - we can't always eat dessert without eating healthy food. All fun fiction is good escapism, but at times we also need to exercise our mind and eat something with the meat of the Word..

I think that realistic fiction or memoir (as I'm writing) that deals with tough issues can open a person's mind to problems and help teach how to minister to hurting souls, which is our mission - to reach others.

That being said, to wallow in only hurting novels and focusing only on the negative isn't healthy either. When I was in the throes of depression, I read all about suicide and people who were abused and hurt in similar ways, and the overabundance of such materials wasn't helpful either. So balance is needed.

Whatever the book, my hope is that there is a message of healing and hope no matter the topic of the book. Today I am re-reading a Dee Henderson story and enjoying it. Now that I am saved (I first read it when I hated God) I find the message comforting. When I was unsaved I thought she focused too much on God. LOL.

My memoir, I don't think will fit in a Christian venue for I share realistically the abuse (sexual and verbal) in the early pages, and the occult in the middle section. Then salvation. My target audience are those who dealt with those two first areas and I need to be realistic enough that they know that I know what they are dealing with. And I pray they stick with me through salvation.

My pastor's wife keeps asking me to detail more things because many Christians don't know the kinds of things I experienced and want to know more.

But there are people who have grown up in the Church and haven't had any of the experiences I've had and maybe they don't need their eyes focused on that kind of negativity.

It is a fine line and I think each person needs to discern what is best for them.

Hoping your day is blessed.