Great stories go one step further and make us think. Long after we’ve put the book back on the shelf, or clicked onto a new link in our e-reader, we find ourselves pondering the questions the story raised.
To readers, it all looks quite easy. The truth is, every part of fiction is hard work. Or ought to be.
That’s perhaps the greatest secret that writing professionals withhold from those starting out. Instead, we dance around the topic, implying that if we just follow a certain set of writing guidelines, if we just steer clear of the overdone tropes, if we just avoid preachy vocabulary, then our fiction will reach “the next level.”
We’ve been discussing these matters here at Spec Faith recently, in Stephen’s series on stereotypical characters, in John Otte’s post “Done To Death,” and in our guest writer, Anne Elisabeth Stengl’s post about personalizing universal themes. But are we hitting the mark?
All fiction needs a basis in reality. An author can come up with new worlds and fantastical circumstances for his or her characters to go through, but if the characters aren’t real or don’t react in a way that the audience can relate to the author has failed . . . Characters are what drive good stories. Characters that struggle, that have serious flaws, that are human. If a novel’s characters are anything but authentic, the reader is robbed of knowing what would have actually happened and the author is lying to them.
The author then begins an analysis of Christian fiction. After examining two particular novels, one a fantasy, she states
Books like The Sword and That Certain Spark aren’t bad, but they lack the excellence that Christians should be showing in their writing. Readers who pick them up aren’t sinning, but they are settling. Instead of reading something with substance, they are settling for the cotton candy of literature. There aren’t any books [considered Christian fiction] that have been published in the last 30 years or so that would be considered “classics”.
Is that a harsh assessment? In part yes, but in part no. First, I think there’s a huge span between cotton candy books and classics. I think there are some novels that hover just above the cotton candy level, and a growing number that are creeping up on the classics. Most fall somewhere in between.
Still, I would have to agree that we haven’t seen any classics emerge from contemporary Christian fiction. Of course, I can’t help but wonder how many general market classics are coming from contemporary writers, too. Perhaps our society isn’t up to the task, but that’s an issue to explore another day.
The point for this present topic is this: classic fiction is more than realistic; it is more than “fresh” or innovative; it is more than “infecting a work with the author’s world view.”
I submit, writing fiction that is more than cotton candy (and let’s be clear — sometimes we all want a little cotton candy, just not a steady diet of it) requires hard, hard work. Learning fiction technique, or the craft of writing, ought to be on the list of work to do, but so should studying human nature and learning more about God.
Could it be that too many authors today are writing from a position of isolation from our culture so that we are no longer in touch with the struggles of the average grocery clerk or the pre-teen girl getting into a fight with a classmate over a boy or the single dad trying to figure out how to make a go of it on his own? Could it be we’re writing over and over about how to meet God because we don’t really understand how to know Him on a deeper level?
These are the questions I’m asking myself, questions that require hard work, but ones I think need to be a part of my writing process if I have any hope of going beyond cotton candy.