For My Writer Friends

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In the wee hours of Monday morning, I received a jolt of inspiration I wanted to share. Every once in a while, I read something that reminds me of why I decided to become an author. It’s easy to lose sight of the why, and instead get lost in all of the how: the stylistic conventions (show, don’t tell; and lose the adverbs, please), drive for productivity (You aren’t writing a thousand words per day yet?); the platform building (free content in exchange for email addresses).  But shortly after midnight, I chanced to read the opening pages of an old book that brought my priorities back into focus.

The book is called The Way Station, by Clifford D. Simak. It’s science fiction, which is not a genre I often read.  I was blown away by the prologue. The writing is that good.

The first pages show us the aftermath of war, a subject about which an enormous amount of ink has been spilled over the centuries. He’s boiled it down, reduced it to its essential essence. His words form a rich literary broth, and the taste lingers in memory long after the reading. He presents timeless truths and universal realities. This is writing as art, rather than mere commerce. It’s hard to imagine Simak thinking about his work as product, or as a lead magnet, or as a way to create multiple streams of income around whatever business he engaged in.  He was creating something of substantial value, something that would outlast him. And indeed it has; the author has been dead for over 30 years, yet his 54-year-old book will surely feel as powerful in the year 2050 as it did back in 1963.

It violates many of the rules the experts preach in their blogs, podcasts, writing workshops, and online courses.

  1. The opening page does not introduce you to a point-of-view character — or any character, for that matter. The experts tell us we have to introduce the POV character by name right away.
  2. It starts with description. The literary fashion police insist we begin with narrative. Like the opening scene of a James Bond movie, we are told to drop the audience into the middle of an action scene, or we will lose them before the end of page one.
  3. It moves from description to backstory; what things were like before they reached the state we read about in the opening sentences. The rule makers tell us backstory is bad.
  4. The writing is beautiful. The arbiters of taste declare that if readers notice the writing at all, then the writing is getting in the way of the story. By “story,” they mean only the narrative plot.

I loved the beautiful prose. I appreciated the poetic juxtaposition of gouted and spouted; of “the screams of horses”  and “the hoarse bellowing of men.”  In a few words, he sums up the aftermath of battle: “the words unspoken and the deeds undone, and the sodden bundles that cried aloud the emptiness and the waste of death.”

This is how I want to write when I grow up. Not necessarily in the same style, but with as much power and artistry. After all the currently fashionable writing rules have been forgotten, artistry will remain. People don’t read the works of Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, or Jane Austen because they are fashionable or stylistically correct. They read them because they are great literature.

I’m not saying that the “rules” of fiction writing are irrelevant. I am saying that the rules exist to serve authors. Authors don’t exist to serve the rules.  [That’s not a new concept. Jesus notably told the Pharisees in Mark 2:27, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath.”]  Writers are prone to forget that, sometimes judging a book’s quality only by how closely it adheres to the rules of current writing fashion. Let me suggest a better measuring stick: how clearly does it speak to the soul? Now go churn out some marketable product create something great!

 

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What Do Readers Tell Their Sons?

While reading a blog post by Kathy Eden on the wisdom or lack thereof of “writing what you know,” I came across this statement: I’m highly skeptical of men trying to write women characters. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had enough men try to tell me what it’s like to be woman that I get a little irritated.  After reading that, I was a little irritated myself.

Full disclosure: I’m in the middle of working on Book Two of the Solid Rock Survivor series, entitled Kindred Spirits. The lead character is a woman named Roz. So I’m invested in this discussion seven ways from Sunday, and am not a neutral, unbiased commentator.  Still, I think it’s fair and reasonable to say her comments are wrong-headed.

Notice a couple of things right off the top. She’s not merely skeptical, she’s highly skeptical. And what exactly is she highly skeptical of? Of men trying to write women characters; she speaks of trying, because in her mind, failure is almost inevitable. It’s baked in. Otherwise she’d say she’s skeptical of men writing female characters, not trying to write them. As aggravating as I find that attitude, she is not the first to express it, nor will she be the last. I have seen numerous reader reviews on Amazon confessing that the reviewer will generally not buy a book by a male author if it has a female protagonist.

Why should men be assumed incapable of writing a female viewpoint character?  It’s not like females are some rare, exotic species that we’ve never observed. Most boys are raised with their mother in the home. Many boys grow up with sisters, too. According to the federal Department of Education, 76% of public school teachers are female.  In college, female students became the majority in 1979, and at last count, 57% of college students are women. Yet despite all these opportunities to observe and interact with the opposite sex, men are somehow deemed incapable of writing believably about them.

The second part of Ms. Eden’s statement is most telling. “I don’t know about you,” she says,” but I’ve had enough men try to tell me what it’s like to be a woman…”  First, she assumes that her reader is a fellow woman. Second, she overlooks something obvious: When a man writes a fictional female character, he’s not trying to tell anyone what it’s like to be a woman. He’s trying to tell readers what the particular fictional woman he created is like. There’s a big difference.

How would this look if the genders were reversed? Let a man say, “I’m highly skeptical whenever a woman tries to write a male character.” Faster than you can say misogyny, the Hear Me Roar brigades would be storming the walls in defense of the sisterhood. Biological sex is not a disability. Today, no one gets away with telling a woman that she is unqualified for something just because she has two X chromosomes. And I’m all for it. Our daughters can be doctors and lawyers, astronauts, athletes and astrophysicists, engineers and entrepreneurs. They just can’t write novels with male protagonists. Abiding by this limitation is what let J.K. Rowling make a moderate success of the Harriet Potter series. Oh wait, it was Harry Potter, wasn’t it?

I like to think a man could do just as well writing about a young girl as Ms. Rowling did writing about young Harry.  The way novels are done today, a writer finishes a rough draft and runs it by a critique group, where the majority of members are probably women.  Then he revises the text, and runs the second draft past a group of beta readers. Again, women are likely well represented here. Then he sends it to an editor. Since 78% of the staff of the American publishing industry is female, it’s likely his editor is a woman.  And she will surely tell him if his female characters are unbelievable. And despite all of these checks, there are women who will refuse to read the published book about a female lead character, simply because a man wrote it. How does the word sexism not apply here?

I have one question for those readers. I’m pretty sure I know what they tell their daughters — that girls can be anything, do anything, if they set their minds to it and work hard enough. My question is what do they tell their sons?

 

 

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I’m with Anton

bruckner

Having been raised on classical music, there are lots of composers whose work I like. But there aren’t many I can relate to. I mean it’s hard to feel much in common with someone like Mozart, a genius who wrote his first symphony at the age of eight and his first opera at twelve; or JS Bach, who, in addition to writing what many consider the greatest single piece of music in the western canon (Mass in B Minor), composed so much that his collected work comprises sixty volumes. These men seemed to operate on a whole different level than ordinary mortals.

But I can relate to Anton Bruckner, a humble Christian composer from Vienna.  Never heard of him? Blame his more illustrious peers for taking all the limelight. The other famous Vienna composers included Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, and Mahler. It’s not easy to stand out in a crowd like that.

Bruckner was a bit of a late bloomer. He wrote nine symphonies in all, all composed between the ages of forty-two and seventy-two.

The man had his share of struggles. At the premier of his Third Symphony, which he conducted at the Vienna Conservatory, the audience was not impressed.  First they laughed. Then they began filing out. When Bruckner finished and turned to take his bows, he was shocked and humiliated to find only an empty room. I like to remind myself of this story whenever I feel like my work isn’t appreciated.

Though I may be a late bloomer, and though I have had my share of bitter disappointments (who hasn’t?), and though I’m surrounded by deservedly more famous writers, none of these things are the main reason I feel a kind of kinship with Brother Anton. It’s more about a shared conviction. Bruckner was  a devout man who wrote a choral work called Te Deum (“Thee, God”). He is reported to have said, “When God calls me to Him and asks me: ‘Where is the talent which I have given you?” Then I shall hold out the rolled-up manuscript of my Te Deum and I know that He will be a compassionate judge.”*    That quote really resonates with me, especially considering the searing memory he must have had of his less-than-compassionate audience for the Third Symphony.

Fighting Back is finished. I poured heart and soul into it.  I think it’s good, but I can’t really know what other people will think of it. That’s a little scary. Will I turn around to face enthusiastic applause, or the humiliating echoes of an empty house?  Whatever happens, I am willing to put it in the Lord’s hands, and I know that He will be a compassionate judge.

  • Classical Music: The 50 Greatest Composers and Their 1,000 Greatest Works by Phil G. Goulding. p 357

 

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So How Many Scovilles is This Novel?

When it comes to reader reviews, authors of Christian fiction have it bad. Fantasy writers have it easier. So do writers of thrillers, suspense, whodunits, and historical fiction. It’s not common for someone to give to give a one-star rating to a Stephen King novel and explain the low rating by saying, “Well-written and scary, with very well-developed characters. But I hate the horror genre, and would never knowingly read a horror novel.” Yet this kind of thing happens to Christian fiction all the time. In reading a few hundred reviews of Christian books by Charles Martin, Ted Dekker, Dee Henderson, and others, I found that quite a few people panned books precisely because they were Christian fiction. These reviewers were mostly non-Christian readers who dislike the idea of any book with explicitly Christian characters or themes. Why bother reading and reviewing them? That makes as much sense as a vegan reviewing a steakhouse.

But that’s not even half the problem. Far more numerous than negative reviews by unbelievers are those reviews by believers who can’t agree among themselves about what Christian fiction is even supposed to be. [Why is this not surprising?] There seem to be three main schools of thought.

The Hold My Messages School
Devotees of the first school of thought see Christian fiction as clean and simple. By “clean,” they mean there is no cursing, no sex, and no violence. There is no dark subject matter. These people want books they can show to their preteen daughter or their pastor without misgivings. But they don’t want any preaching with their purity. They are quite clear about not wanting “message fiction” or a story designed to get them to think deeply about anything. As one reviewer put it, “I just want a good, clean mystery or suspense novel. I don’t want to feel like I’m in Sunday school.”

The That’ll Preach School
Followers of the second school demand more than clean content. They want explicit Christian messaging on top of the clean. A woman expressed her disappointment with one of the novelists by opining that all his protagonists have the same traits; they are strong, and noble, and faithful, and have a well-developed sense of right and wrong. But they don’t rely upon God. They are strong and noble in themselves. Their activities and decision-making are not guided by any apparent relationship with God. They have a good building with no foundation. For readers like her, books like that fail the litmus test for Christian fiction, no matter how clean they are.

The Save the World School
Members of the third school of thought are stricter still. Not only must there be Christian messaging, it must be evangelistic. Its purpose must be to move the non-believing reader in the direction of conversion. If it doesn’t attempt to do this, it’s not Christian fiction.

So people come at Christian novels with widely divergent expectations. And there is no way a novel can meet the expectations of all three schools of thought. Many of the one-star and two-star reviews I read stemmed not from poor writing, but from the reviewers’ surprise that the novel was not what they expected of Christian fiction. Whether or not the story was well told seemed of secondary importance to them.

What’s needed is an objective rating system, one that eliminates the unpleasant surprise of unmet expectations. People of every school of thought (and no school) will know at a glance whether or not they might enjoy a given book. I propose a three-part rating.

Maturity Rating
Part one would be a maturity rating, just like the MPAA film ratings used at the movies. Something rated G is for General Audiences; the material is fine for all ages, and contains nothing that should offend parents of young children. PG means Parental Guidance Suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children. PG-13 means some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Parents should be cautious. This may be due to mature subject matter, disturbing imagery, or instances of harsh language. There’s probably not much potential for finding R-rated material in Christian fiction, but you get the idea.

Messaging Rating
Part 2 would be a messaging rating. Is there a theme or a message the author is trying to get across to readers? What is it? I rate messaging E for Evangelistic if the obvious goal of the author is to convert the unbelieving reader. I rate it P for Pastoral if the author’s goal is to bring Christian readers into a clearer or deeper understanding of some aspect of their faith. And I’d rate it NPR for Not Particularly Religious (See what I did there?) if the author’s goal is simply to tell a good tale, with no underlying religious agenda.

Christian Intensity Rating
Part 3 is the cutting edge part. It’s a rating of Christian intensity in the text. I use an index of Christian Heat Units to describe this intensity much as Scovilles are used to measure the relative pungency of hot peppers. You’ve heard of Scoville Heat Units, right? They’re named after Wilbur Scoville, the pharmacist who created the index. A bell pepper rates zero SHUs; original Tabasco Sauce is 2,500-5,000 SHUs; hot wax peppers are 5,000 – 10,000; super chilies are 40,000-50,000; and the vaunted Habanero is 100,000-350,000. Pepper spray (civilian) is about 2 million, while police-grade pepper spray is about 5 million. The scale maxes out at 16 million Scovilles, and yes, you can buy bottles of pure capsaicin that are that hot.

My Christian Heat Index scale runs from 0-100. The exact formula is a trade secret, extremely hush-hush. But I take into account questions like these: Does the book have Christian characters? Are they shown engaging in activities like praying, attending church, or reading the Bible? Do they talk with other characters about God or Christian principles? Is their decision-making influenced by their faith? Is their Christianity integral to the plot or incidental to it? Does God intervene in the lives of any of the characters, or does He stay entirely offstage, being believed in but not doing anything definite? Just how much of a Christian feel does this book have? Please note that this rating does not deal with author intent about messaging: it just tells you how high a concentration of Christian content is in a book. Let’s rate a few examples so you can see how it works.

Title: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Bronte

Maturity: PG; Messaging: NPR; Christian Heat Units: 60

It’s a “clean” book, but it deals with issues that aren’t small child-friendly: abusive relationships, an insane woman that sets fire to her house, etc. So it gets a PG rating. There are no overt religious themes or messaging, so it gets an NPR in that category. However, there is quite a bit of Christianity in the backdrop of the book; people believe in God, discuss scriptural principles, and expect to live their lives according to scriptural precepts. There is no attempt to evangelize or instruct the reader. Religious belief is just a feature of the setting, like birds are a feature of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or short beings are a feature of The Hobbit.

Title: This Present Darkness
Author: Frank Peretti

Maturity: PG;  Messaging: E; Christian Heat Units: 100

This is also a clean book. But with so many demons literally flying around and possessing people, it’s not for small children. I would tend to rate most books aimed at adults at least a PG – just like the movies. There is messaging here, including strong attempts to evangelize one or more of the characters, and through them, the unbelieving reader. One of the main characters is a church pastor who tackles every obstacle with prayer. The necessity of prayer is a major theme of the book. From start to finish, nearly every human action is seen to be an extension of something going on in the battle between angels and demons. There are constantly people praying, people sharing the gospel, casting out demons, and so on. There is no plot separate from the spiritual warfare story. So by definition, this one is 100 on the CHU scale. Atheists would get the hives. So might Christians who feel that a proper Christian book doesn’t deal with “heavy” themes like demon possession.

Title: The Screwtape Letters
Author: C.S. Lewis

Maturity: G; Messaging: E,P;  Christian Heat Units: 100

This is that rare G rating for content. It may be too sophisticated for very young readers, but it’s not inappropriate. Its obvious goal is to enlighten believers about how things work in the spirit realm, as well as to convince unbelievers to embrace Jesus. So it gets both an E and a P for messaging. Every chapter is a spiritual precept, albeit told from the point of view of the demon who apparently wrote the letters. It is entirely about the Christian life and the struggle for the souls of people. That’s why this gets a 100 on the CHU scale.

Title: Back on Murder
Author: J. Mark Bertrand

Maturity: PG-13;  Messaging: NPR;  Christian Heat Units:10

It’s a clean book in that it contains no cursing and no sex scenes. The book follows a homicide detective in a case that involves both murder and sexual assault (neither event actually shown). The circumstances of the crime account for the PG-13 rating. The protagonist is not a Christian. His wife becomes one, which is a source of annoyance for him. She is a relatively minor character in this book. There is no religious messaging or religious agenda on the part of the author. Some scenes are set in the offices of a church, and characters include staff members of this church. But there is relatively little overtly religious content, and faith is not a primary driver of the plot. So we’ll give it a 10 on the CHU index.

See how this works? It’s important to point out that none of the ratings for maturity, messaging, or Christian Heat Units measure how good a book is. You’ll get that from the body of the review, and from the star-rating assigned. The ratings we’ve been discussing are designed only to give a meaningful snapshot of a book’s contents, not its quality.

Armed with this information, the reviewer who objected to a certain Christian novel because it had one scene set in a bar could choose to read only G-rated novels. [If I were feeling snarky, I might suggest Christian Fantasy for her, because in the real world, not everyone lives like a member in good standing at her church.] Sensitive atheists who feel “hit over the head with religion” by any novel that mentions God more than once would prefer books with the lowest number of CHUs. [Again, if I were feeling snarky, I’d say “Toughen up, Cupcake: you are surrounded by millions of believers in the real world, and knowing a little something about them won’t hurt you a bit.”] The devotees of the Hold My Messages School will be able to easily avoid books that preach to them, or that encumber the plot with Meaning. And those who insist that every story must have a moral can confirm both the presence and the type of said moral.

In other words, in the few seconds that it takes to read the ratings grid, you can determine if any Christian book is potentially one you’d enjoy. How cool is that?

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All the Lonely People

Eleanor Rigby died in the church and was buried along with her name
Nobody came

As much as we authors like to imagine that our words are for the whole world, they’re not. Only a certain subset of readers will enjoy any given writer. To be effective, a writer has to know his audience. He has to have a clear picture of the person who will get something of value from his prose, and then write with that person in mind. I write for Eleanor Rigby, among others. Yes, she’s an imaginary character in the Beatles song that is named for her. And yes, she’s dead. But she is a convenient placeholder for me, a stand-in for all the hurting real people whose names I don’t know, but whose stories I can intuitively sense.

A Facebook friend recently shared a post about “virtual living.” The post talked about how people so often substitute virtual experiences for real ones; watching TV instead of getting out and doing something; interacting with virtual friends online instead of visiting a real friend in person. I’ll ignore the obvious irony of someone posting this to their 150,000+ Facebook followers, and concentrate on the responses the post got. Several of them brought Eleanor Rigby to mind. Two especially stuck out at me:

A woman with the initials JDN said: So true. It’s heartbreaking. While this scenario is without any connection, it may be all some people are afforded in certain seasons. Church is one of the loneliest places I go. I love the Body, but it hurts to be there many times.

And a man with the initial MH added this: Maybe it is because a lot of folks have been damaged by real people, so they prefer to avoid the pain and live in isolation. I’ve attended many churches through the years, and as a result of it, decided I would rather steer clear of “well meaning Christians” that have no idea how to treat others with compassion, love, and understanding. I finally found a church that “gets it”. There are a lot of hurting people out there. Some of them are struggling to just get through the day. I don’t fault them for it…

The church is an organism. It’s the body of Christ, composed of all the people who are part of it. But many of us experience the church more as an organization than as an organism. It can seem to be all about hierarchies, budgets, and programs rather than people in an organic relationship. It can be full of folks who are busy, and harried, and yes, lonely. Sometimes the relationships in a congregation aren’t much deeper than the virtual relationships we have on Facebook.

I’ve begun to understand that most of my ministerial and artistic endeavors are aimed at people like MH and JDN. And Eleanor Rigby. On the surface, Fighting Back is a novel about what happens when a young man named Eddie gets into a fight while sticking up for a harassed woman on the street. The brief fight puts Eddie in the cross-hairs of some very bad people. Complications and consequences ensue. But there is another story here, one I think many Christians will relate to: the question of why churches like Eddie’s sometimes grievously injure the very people they exist to help. It’s a very real problem. Fortunately, I believe there are real solutions to it. They’re also part of the story.

If you love God, but haven’t always loved church (or felt that church loved you), then you are my audience. If you have ever joined a church hoping not to encounter the issues you encountered in your three (or more!) previous ones, you are my audience. And if you can relate to the expression “there is no hurt like church hurt,” then you are my audience. I wrote Fighting Back with you in mind. It might even help you heal.

 

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Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury

When I received the envelope stamped “Jury Service: Your Civic Duty,” I rolled my eyes. Like almost everyone I know, I’ve been getting these summonses for years, and I am never chosen to be on a jury. So the notice usually just means I have to get up early, slog through rush hour traffic, and sit for four or five hours in a crowded room before being sent home. In the unlikely event that my number is called and I go stand before a judge, I am always rejected by the defense attorney. This is because I have a family member who worked as a law enforcement officer. Defense attorneys always assume that I’ll be biased in favor of the prosecution (nope), or that I will grant a police officer’s testimony more weight than another person’s (not at all). Their false assumptions in this regard always got me out of serving.

So when I arrived at Superior Court, I paid fleeting attention to the little propaganda film about the importance of jury duty. It talked about how founding fathers like John Adams regarded the right to a jury of one’s peers as equal in importance to the right to vote. One commentator pointed out that when you vote, your voice is one among millions. When you serve on a jury, your voice is one among just twelve, giving you an outsized impact on the lives and property of your fellow citizens. That caught my ear.

The court officers called for potential jurors holding numbers one through seventy to report to a courtroom. I was number 48. Once in the courtroom, there was an undercurrent of good natured grumbling until a judge entered and explained that this would be a criminal case. The defendant was charged with nine counts of forcible rape of a child, plus one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. The charges were very specific and quite graphic as to the acts alleged; I could not list them here without grossing out the readers and probably violating the terms of service of this site. When the charges were read, the mood in the room instantly got very sober and serious.

We were all called before the judge in numerical order, beginning with number one. Since twelve jurors and two alternates would be needed, I hoped against hope that they could fill that number before they got to me. No such luck. When I stood before the judge, I answered the question about having family members in law enforcement and waited for the inevitable objection from the defense. It never came. The judge also asked me if I would give a police officer’s testimony more weight than a civilian’s. I answered truthfully, but deliberately hesitated a second or two, as if I needed to think before saying no. Again, no objection was raised.

Then the judge asked me something truly interesting: Did I have any religious convictions that would prevent me from rendering a fair verdict in this trial? I thought about that. I certainly didn’t want to spend days listening to explicit descriptions of sex organs and unnatural acts. And I certainly didn’t like the idea of having to discuss details of the crime in mixed company. Perhaps I could invoke my personal standards of propriety to get myself out of what was sure to be a very disagreeable task.

But I couldn’t bring myself to take that route. The complainant was a young girl who was fourteen years old when she was allegedly gang-raped. If the charges were true, then someone needed to step up and provide justice for her. And if the charges against this defendant were false, then the reasoning ability of twelve people was all that stood between an innocent man and the deep pit over which he now teetered. Someone had to do the dirty work of sifting through the evidence, deciding the facts, and rendering a just verdict. How could I refuse? I wasn’t about to become that guy who demands that justice be done, but declines to get his own hands dirty doing it. So I told the judge the truth: I would not be happy deliberating on this jury, but I could render a fair verdict. I was chosen as juror number seven.

Over the course of the next week-and-a-half, I observed a number of things. In no particular order they include:

Juries aren’t as dumb as people think. The judge’s instructions to this jury were read aloud, and the process took an hour. There were precise instructions about what could or could not be considered evidence. Many things we would have wanted to know were not admissible at trial. We were to avoid discussing the trial with anyone outside the jury room, avoid all media accounts, and avoid any online research about any aspect of the trial. We could not be moved by either sympathy or animosity. Only the evidence that had been admitted at trial could be considered in arriving at a verdict. By contrast, when the general public follows a trial in the media, there is lots of speculation and assertions that are not admitted at trial. The court of public opinion is more freewheeling than a court of law. When a jury reaches a verdict different than the public’s, many conclude the jury members were stupid or corrupt. They are neither. But they are severely constrained, and this is good.

If the administration of justice were a business, it would be big business indeed. The day this trial began, there were fifteen other trials scheduled to take place in the same courthouse. In my little home state of Massachusetts there are 20 Superior Court locations and 62 District Courts. That’s a veritable justice factory churning out trials and verdicts, with monetary damages, jail time or prison time for the losers. This is high stakes stuff, and except for high-profile cases, it goes on quietly in the background, unnoticed and unremarked by most people. But for the people caught up in the system, it is a big deal. The defendant in my case was a young man in his twenties. He tried to look stoic throughout the trial. But when the jury found him guilty of seven of ten counts, he sat with his face in his hands. Each count carried a potential sentence of fifteen years to life. His bail was revoked, and he was remanded to custody pending sentencing next week.

Since this blog is primarily about writing, allow me these two observations: First, real life is intense. So there is no excuse for writing sterile, emotionally flat fiction. This was a gut-wrenching trial for the complainant, her family, the defendant, and the jurors. . Furthermore, there is intense drama around all of us; people experiencing unspeakable joy, or shattering grief, or blinding rage, or crippling fear. We need only take the time to look around and see it. If our fiction doesn’t provoke strong emotion, it’s because our characters and/or their stories aren’t real enough.

Second, answering the judge’s questions during jury selection reminded me of what I like about lead character Eddie Caruthers in Fighting Back. He’s deeply flawed in many ways (aren’t we all), but he is always willing to wade into a bad situation to help someone. He knows that to make the world a cleaner place, he sometimes has to get his hands dirty. This he willingly does, and it’s one of the things I admire about him. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I hope you’ll agree!

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What Clean Means, Part 2

We ended Part 1 of this two-part post by asking a question: How is it that scripture is clean and holy, despite containing a long list of scenes and situations that wouldn’t make it past the editorial standards review at most modern Christian publishing houses? The answer is that scripture is clean because of whose word it is, not because it adheres to a convenient list of taboos to avoid mentioning. It’s holy because of whose Spirit it exudes. It’s pure because its author is pure. This is true of the whole Bible, even the parts that make us uncomfortable.

When the Bible writers chronicled unholy acts, they did not do it with unholy purpose. They didn’t portray violence for its shock value. They didn’t include sexual content to provoke readers to lust. You can read about vile sins in scripture without fear that you will somehow be dirtied or defiled by the reading. Even the ugly stuff is in there for your benefit. God had the writers include what was needed to accurately portray the truth, and to convey its emotional and spiritual impact. This is the only effective way to teach the lessons that need to be learned.

The fear of the Lord is to hate evil. An author who shares God’s abhorrence of evil can write about evil people or evil deeds without conveying either approval or unwholesome fascination with that evil. That’s what scripture does. But when authors filter a story through a list of prohibited words and topics, they risk writing something that is not merely clean, but sterile. If the goal is to avoid having any character think, say, or do anything that a Bible Belt deacon would not approve, even Christian readers will get bored. The writer has bleached the soil to get rid of all the germs, and now nothing will grow in it: no conflict, no passion, no pathos, and certainly nothing powerful enough to resonate deeply or stir the soul of the reader. A sterile story is emotionally unsatisfying.

Worse yet, a sterile story fails to tell the whole truth, or even enough of the truth to matter. When your most hardened  villains talk like Boy Scouts; when single men aged 18-35 go through their days with nary a lustful thought, either not thinking of women at all or thinking of them only with sisterly affection; when the preachers in the story are perfectly wise, perfectly patient, and perfectly loving; none of your characters seem to be real people. If the prodigal son had done nothing worse than miss a few synagogue services, it wouldn’t have been much of a story. We need to see from whence he was redeemed. It’s only because he wound up in the metaphorical gutter after squandering his money on riotous living and prostitutes that we understand the depth of his Father’s love and grace. To sterilize the story is to bleach away all its power.

So like many things in life, defining “clean” turns out not to be as simple as it first appears. It is not merely a matter of avoiding prohibited topics on The List some committee compiled. I’ve seen and heard artistic creations that did not violate the strictures of The List, but still struck me as unclean. And as we’ve seen with scripture, it’s possible to run afoul of The List and yet be holy. What’s needed is something less convenient but infinitely more useful than The List: discernment, exercised on a case-by-case basis.

 

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