Over the past nearly 4 years, I’ve received hundreds of equeries, chapters, and manuscripts. I’ve read ’til my one good eye felt like this – a staring and patched mass of strained retinal tissue:
And my head felt like this – BANG BANG BANG:
I’ve read and liked, read and disliked, read and pondered, read and puked, and read and laughed so hard my stomach hurt. I can’t imagine how fun it must be to be an editor for a much larger press, but then, maybe the stress would get to me and I’d hate my job. That would be unfortunate indeed because I love my job!
I’ve always seen myself as an educator of sorts, and this time with high hopes that the evangelical community especially will shake the fog from their mental machinations to become what they should: accurate portrayers of excellence, especially if they claim to follow THE God. Toward that goal, I offer the following observations. These are based on a pattern that’s come down the pike during these past 4 years: a wave that comes over me when I click on that manuscript attachment and feast my eyes on those first few words. Did you know that by the third or fourth line of a new submission, this wave turns into a knowing? It says to me, I’ve walked this way before. Basically, I know this book was written by an evangelical. Or not.
But this isn’t a rant, per se, so instead of talking only about why most evangelical manuscripts don’t soar, let’s consider how to improve the average evangelical-written piece. Strap in.
1) Writing must be strong in voice, and clear and unmuddled in presentation. It should be unforced in its structure and idea-formation. In the evangelical writing I’ve seen – both in manuscripts that have come in to Port Yonder Press and books by evangelicals on the NYT bestsellers list – nearly all have been deficient in this regard. I’m not sure how to describe it other than to say they:
- lack in substantial ideas beyond the overused basics
- have a forced-feel to the writing style (i.e., lacking in natural thought flow)
- are cut-off from honest observations of the human condition
- and as a result of the above, are deficient in that élan vital that marks a fine piece of writing. Instead, they too often come across as mass market paperback pieces of juvenilia.
I do understand that the evangelical community has, for all practical purposes, shut itself off from the rest of the larger writing community, and this, in my opinion, results from fear of contamination, but that’s for another day. But what this does is produce ingrown writers and writing styles, and it certainly doesn’t foster greatness. And as long as this trend continues, the evangelical community at large will churn out second-class writers, no matter how many large and small Christian publishing houses crop up and how many imprints continue to suck in writers of that persuasion. A positive “testimony,” right?
TIP: read and learn from the very best, regardless of their religious persuasion. Writers simply must read those better than themselves, and unfortunately, very little “evangelical” writing is “the best,” regardless of the award contests they birth and propagate within their small communities.
2) Imperfect people – this is who we are. But I’m talking about more than just penning “realistic characters.” There’s an undefined humanity that gets left off the page because, I think, evangelicals have too often shed that “undefined humanity” themselves, replacing it with a blindered and cloistered spiritualism that aches to be untouched by the larger world around us, and which, by the way, God never requires. But it comes off merely as isolationist, and produces a reserved-for-heaven mentality (i.e., unrealistic), while still living in this very unheavenly world. The cognitive dissonance of such comes blasting through, though, on the written page, in the lives of church-going people, in the lives of the innocent children who see the glaring inconsistencies. Is it any wonder the evangelical church is losing its youth?
It’s hard to have characters do and think in ways we don’t, isn’t it? ONE SIMPLE TIP: don’t have your characters engage in spiritual “ponder-fests” where instead of acting on external stimuli in believable ways, they run through a litany of mental Scriptural admonitions and then, and only then, decide on a course of action. Let them use common sense and act like real people. Again, this doesn’t have to mean they lash out or swear or whatever, but they shouldn’t always do the perfect thing, either. They aren’t perfect, or shouldn’t be. Give us unexpected, but totally believable, people-responses.
3) Reviewable by the masses. (This may be the most important of all, at least initially.) Your writing will need to garner positive attention from those who don’t know you, those outside your social and religious affiliations. Insider, friend, companion reviews are not an accurate measure of book quality, yet this activity is especially prevalent in the evangelical community.
TIP: Do you want your writing to be truly recognized as something worthwhile? Then write it with the view of reaching more than the 5000 people who read the evangelical books the CBA puts out; think BIGGER. And get it reviewed by ForeWord, Publisher’s Weekly, Midwest Book Review, and others. They won’t pull punches, and you’ll discover just how good, or bad, you really are.
4) Universal in themes and scope. I love the fact that the world contains more than good and evil, black and white. Our lives are complex and multi-faceted. Further, I love America, our opportunities and vast expanses of beauty, but I also realize we’re only a small part of the larger world. My Christianity is based on concepts and ideas I’ve explored, discovered, then embraced. But it doesn’t roboticize me. I’m still a living breathing person with a God-given mind, and my guess is that he expects me to use it, whether I live here or in another land far from our own. Universality is just that: it’s themes and understandable concepts which are easily accessible by anyone – it’s having a story than reaches across political and societal and religious boundaries to speak to the heart of the person in concepts they readily grasp, and without distracting via authorial intrusion (pushing a belief, etc.). This doesn’t mean you can’t have characters of belief, but their beliefs should be subservient to the story-at-large.
TIP: Focus on universal themes and real locations outside the little land we call home.
5) Fiction that is fiction. A story should be something that comes to a writer from deep within their imagination, formed likely by life experiences and perceptions, but always springboarding off the wonder that takes the reader to different times and places with new people who have their own personalities like the real live people we know and care about.
Characters and storylines based on an author’s desire to get their own beliefs accepted by the reader is an insult to that reader’s intelligence, not to mention an invasive tactic comparable to a religious cult or political group soliciting donations, but revealing their affiliation only after the donation has been dropped into the little yellow can.
TIP: Remember that a story is a story is a story – it’s not an agenda, a gospel tract, a moral, a message, a lesson, a way to reach, etc. – and believable writing revolves around great storytelling.
In the days ahead I hope to provide further solid thoughts on this, why evangelicals are usually at the bottom of the heap, writing-wise, and how they can change that.
Publishers, readers, and even Mickey, will do handstands when they begin to get books by Christians that are seriously able to compete in the marketplace, in writing style, in ideas, in universal appeal, in power and observably credible plots and characters. I’m doing a handstand already – just thinking of the possibilities!
This post has been about my observations on evangelical writing, but I’m sure you’ve come across some of the same things. What have you seen, and what do you think will help evangelical writing in the long run? What will eventually change the tide, and can it be changed or is it too late for that? Is American Evangelicalism’s reactionary attitudes toward change too deeply ingrained, in individuals, in the movement as a whole?
As always, keep your comments kind and civil or they’ll be deleted. Looking forward to your thoughts!