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Hard Work And Cotton Candy

Mar 5, 2012

To readers, good stories are page-turners that fly by. The writing flows, conveying vivid scenes and creating interesting characters that come to life in our minds.

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?

Today I read a student article (by way of a blog post by Mike Duran) entitled “Diluted Reality” that discusses Christian fiction. The author begins by making a case for reality in fiction:

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.

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 2004. She has covered high school sports for a Los Angeles area newspaper group, published articles and short stories in several print and online magazines, and placed in the top twenty-five in the 2006 Writer’s Digest Short, Short Story contest. She currently blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. Her editing credits include non-fiction and fiction alike, most notably four titles in the Dragons in Our Midst and Oracle of Fire series by Bryan Davis. You can learn more about her editing services and read her weekly writing tips at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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18 comments on "Hard Work And Cotton Candy"

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Sherwood Smith
I think part of the trouble is with the word ‘classics,’ which used to be reserved for the ancient Greek and Roman texts. Now it seems to mean “Books I had to study in school,” which when I was young was reserved for works from mostly male authors of Western European and some American origin. A token woman or two. Books that will endure–how can we predict? If we read the reviews of the greats, predicting what will endure and what won’t, we get some big surprises. Henry James, generally considered a monument on the literary scene both as writer,… Read more »
Shannon Dittemore

Fabulous, thoughtful blog post. It’s something to aspire to, isn’t it? The first time I met my marketing guy, he asked me this: What do you want to be known for?

Shannon Dittemore

I swear my comment was longer than that! Accio comment!

E. Stephen Burnett

Perhaps the comment was placed under a summon-proof spell?

But! seriously. How frustrating. Every once in a while the system has a hiccup.

This may be the only surefire counter-spell.

Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman)

What? Are you ignoring Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead?

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