When I was in graduate school, I was seriously into studying principles of the craft of fiction writing. When it comes down to it, that’s really what getting an M.F.A. is all about – you come to workshop knowing the elements of creative writing and bring your talent with you, but then you actually have to crack the thing open and see how it works. It’s like working on a car engine. It’s not enough to just start it up and hit the road. You’ve got to know how it starts up so you can hit the road to begin with. It’s no wonder why “workshop” is the word we use for writing classes and critiques – that’s exactly what it is. Grad workshops are garages where we bust out the toolbox, pop open the hood, and see what’s working and what’s keeping it from running smoothly.
I read Jeff Gerke’s The Art and Craft of Writing Christian Fiction because, as I’ve described in earlier entries, my new goal with my writing is to glorify God in my work. One of my friends asked me once if this meant I was going to “go all Anne Rice on my writing.” This isn’t going to happen. There’s nothing God glorifying about someone who writes vampire stories and erotica and then turns around and writes books about Christianity. It’s just too much of a double standard for me to swallow. In any case, I’ve faced a number of dilemmas about how to evaluate my writing process and understanding of craft within the realm of bringing spiritual themes into my work. This book has been more than instructive in all these areas. Step aside, John Dufresne and John Gardner, authors of my favorite books about writing fiction. This is the best craft book I’ve ever read.
I think that the shift in focus from literary to Christian fiction is what made Gerke’s work so affecting to me. Authors such as Dufresne and Gardner are writing for largely academic literary audiences – they explain the rules in their own unique ways, offering challenges and exercises for writers to put the skills of point of view, voice, place, dialogue, and narration to work. As a result, most of the concepts overlap from craft book to craft book, tempting seasoned writers to skip pages about frequently discussed topics. What sets this book apart is that it is completely author focused – teaching the reader these elements of craft, but asking her to consider the ways that those elements might go to work in her own project. Gerke, founder of Christian publishing company Marcher Lord Press and author of numerous speculative works of religious fiction, has a voice that is at once instructive and witty, even quirky and downright hilarious. He is unpretentious and consistently engaging, making a page turner out of what most might imagine to be a dull topic.
As a result, I took three important lessons away from this book in particular. These aren’t just tips for Christian writers. They’re good rules to follow for all writers. All of them are things I’ve heard before – but again, the use of a Christian lens allowed me to see them from a new point of view, really understanding why these elements are important for a book to succeed. Let’s talk about them, shall we?
1. Understand Your Motivations for Writing: Before even launching into the principles of good Christian fiction, Gerke implores readers to examine their goals and desires as a writer. This might seem like an odd question – at least it did to me. “Duh,” I thought. “I write because God gave me this talent and I want to use it to honor Him. I write because I love it. I write because it’s the only thing I’ve ever really felt good doing.” All of these seem like good reasons…but gradually, the more I read, the more impure motives began to rise up.
“I write because I want to be published.”
“I write because I want validation.”
“I write because everyone told me I’d fail, and I want to prove them wrong.”
All of these, Gerke states, are terrible reasons to want to be a writer.
This was the moment of epiphany for me as I read. Gerke recommends that “If you are an approval addict, or a perfectionist,” readers should acquire The Search for Significance by Robert McGee, a book that allowed him to let go of his own unquenchable thirst for approval and acceptance and “begin writing – and living – simply for Him.” After I read this chapter, I immediately checked the shelves at work – and found a copy of McGee’s book. I haven’t read it yet, but what I do know is that this is an area I need to work on. Several weeks ago, I wrote about my frustrations involving the mental constipation of ideas I’ve been experiencing and the parade of rejection letters I’ve received. “When am I going to get published again?” I’ve asked Him. But it isn’t the right question, or the right prayer. What I’m remembering when I pray about publication is the thrill of opening the envelope or e-mail and reading the one line statement that says the editor would like to feature my work in her journal. And of course, the best part came when the copy arrived or was published online, and there were my stories, available for anyone to read.
But now, I question where that thrill really came from. It was an honor, yes. It was confirmation that I’ve grown as an artist, indeed. But like the question of why I write to begin with, the answers get strung out priority wise pretty fast. I think what it was really about for me was pride and greed – two of the worst sins we are inevitably going to commit. And both create idols in our lives that are not God. “If you’re looking for a publishing contract to make you content, then you’re looking to a piece of paper to do something only God can do,” Gerke tells readers. And he’s right. A huge thing this book made me do was reevaluate my needs as a writer. I freely admit that getting published was a good feeling – not just because it validated my talent, but because when people found out, I felt like I gained respect. From having twenty congratulatory compliments on my Facebook page?? It almost seems laughable now.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be published, or wanting people to read my work. After all, we write to share thoughts with others. But it’s about having a proper perspective, and I don’t think that’s something I’ve had lately. Through this next project, I want to write for the right reasons, to let God work that through me.
2. Find Ways to Not Use Profanity: This might seem obvious given the subject matter, but really, it’s good advice for fiction in general. When I was writing my thesis, I bumped up against my main editor multiple times because of my overt use of profanity in my stories. He told me that not only was it not honor to the Lord, but I was a better writer than to take the easy way out through cheap words. At the time, I told him that he was wrong – I was writing about hippies in the early ‘70s, who traveled around Ohio in a rock band. Of course they would drop F-bombs! My responsibility was to portray life as it really is! In yet another convicting segment of the book, though, Gerke set me straight about how I should be going about the use of language in my work.
Using the “writer as filmmaker” analogy that Gerke weaves through the whole book, he likens the way to use bad language in one’s work to how older movies used to handle sex scenes: “The door shut and the screen faded to black. We knew what was going on, but it wasn’t onstage.” It’s not like that anymore. Our standards have changed so much over time that now it’s completely appropriate in the eyes of the general public to have full frontal nudity and explicit sex in movies. And 99% of it serves no purpose to the story at all. It’s the same thing with language. For me, movies stand out when there is a lack of bad language – not when the characters are obviously getting off on using four letter words. When the language becomes noticeable and distracting, it begins to bother me and interfere with my perception of the story.
A prime example is The Departed, the film that won Martin Scorsese his Best Director Oscar (finally). It’s a fabulous movie – top notch performers, an innovative use of music, and a high risks story that makes viewers care about the characters and their situations. Did I like it? Yes. Will I ever watch it again? Probably not. A brilliant script, for me, was marred by a highly excessive use of the F dash dash dash word. The Internet Movie Database trivia for the film reveals that the word and its derivatives appears 237 times in the 150 minute movie – the most uses of the word in a film that has won Best Picture. It makes me think about movies like The Third Man, older films with the same pacing and energy as The Departed. Can you imagine that Ferris wheel scene with racketeer Harry Lyme busting out some four letter words in that speech about why he’s made the selfish and brutally destructive decisions he has? Absolutely not. The truth is that whenever a word – any word – shows up that much in any context, it loses its power and ultimately its meaning. It just becomes a sound with a vague emotion attached, if any at all. “Anyone can write in a cuss word,” Gerke explains. “It takes real talent to give us the feeling of the cussing without literally spelling it out.”
3. “…and they live happily ever after” – Don’t Convert Your Characters: In a chapter titled “The Bad Boy Gets Saved,” Gerke discusses the cliche plot of Christian fiction that nearly always derails the books he’s read as a publisher. In these stories, the major dramatic question has no substance other than “Will Bruce come to know the Lord?” (Not necessarily Bruce specifically, but anyone). The book is an internal struggle with life about whether or not Christianity is for him. There’s a scene in a church where the pastor gives a sermon that says EXACTLY what Bruce needed to hear, and he turns his life over to God. At the end, he falls to his knees in the driveway, rain pouring down all around him, and sobs because he’s wasted so much of his life. And that’s all folks.
The reason conversion stories don’t work, Gerke tells us, is that they aren’t believable as fiction. Yes, there have been many times when I’ve gone to church and heard sermons that hit me so hard that I know God meant for me to be there on that day, just to hear those words. But in fiction, scenes like this come across as phony and preachy. It’s also just plain unrealistic. Nobody becomes a Christian in one split moment, from hearing one person say one thing – for most people I know, it was a process that took years and years before they reached the decision. And in terms of craft, conversions just don’t make for interesting stories. Or endings.
And here’s the kicker: it’s a good thing I heard this. Because that was exactly what my original novel idea was going to be. Thanks, Jeff Gerke, for keeping me from wasting months of my life on something that probably would have made my NaNo novel look like The Great Gatsby.
So where does this leave me in terms of my forthcoming project? The more I think about it, the more I think a mix of Francine Rivers, Nabokov, C.S. Lewis, and Flannery O’Connor is the way to go. Wow, you might say. That sounds like the world’s weirdest writer’s conference ever. But they each bring something unique to the table of my creative process – Rivers is a master at using Biblical stories as a foundation for her own original fiction, Nabokov and O’Connor created some of the most depraved characters that we love to hate and love to read about, Lewis was not just a great writer, but a great critic, theologian, and writer about writing. That’s the kind of book I want to write. Currently, I’m searching for Bible stories that aren’t often quoted or discussed to use as a parallel for a modern day narrative. I want characters that are dark, but relatable, sinful, but not to the point of seeking conversion. Most of all, in spite of the subtle way I wish to explore Christianity, I want to write with the Lord Jesus Christ as the center of my thoughts. Not publication, not approval, not showing people who don’t agree with my career choice who’s boss. As Gerke tells us, Christian fiction writers create for not just an audience of one – but an audience of The One.
Watch the famous Third Man scene here!