Category Archives: Writing

Do Humanist Novels Need Warning Labels?`

Many Christians have become a bit smarter in selling their fiction.  To reach a secular audience, they write good plots, good stories, and rather than the Christian element being full front and center, it is embedded in the book. This is seen as wise marketing and wise outreach. However, many secular readers are crying foul,  some saying that Christian Fiction should come with a warning label.

If we’re going to put warning labels on books as a general rule, then I’m okay with that. However, it seems to me that to single out Christian books as the ones who have to provide some level of warning suggests something especially toxic about Christianity that is incredibly offensive.

As a reader, I often find myself coming  into books full of all kinds of biases and agendas. I remember reading a children’s book by Isaac Asimov and stumbling into new age religion.  I picked up the Pelican Brief as a kid and in the first few pages, found a boat load full of profanity, sexual immorality, and Republican-bashing.

Writers of various types of novels use their books to push environmentalism, feminism, gun control, gay rights, atheism, humanism, and no one ever asks them to put a warning label on the book. Yet, if a Christian writes a book and straightforward explains what the plot is but doesn’t explicitly state, “Religion warning! Religion warning” they’re guilty of some sort of fraud.

If you truly don’t want to read Christian fiction and it really bothers when you stumble into it, then Google the author, read the reviews. Don’t make an impulse buy and then whine that the author didn’t explicitly tell you his biases up front.

If there is a warning label that should go on books, perhaps it is. “Warning: The author of this book has biases, and this book may be a conscious or unconscious attempt to influence you towards his way of thinking. This is the freedom that authors of all stripes enjoy in a free society. Be advised.” Such a warning label ought to be common sense, but who believes in that any more?

What I Learned from Stephen Bly

Idaho Christian Writers have lost a great treasure as Stephen Bly: a pastor, an author of more than 100 books, and statesman went home to be with the Lord yesterday at the age of 66, after a five year long battle with cancer and five days short of his forty-eighth wedding anniversary.

I only met him once, but once was enough to leave an indelible impression. Sometimes, with Bly, it didn’t even taken once as Daniel Darling explained .

Bly was best known as a writer of Westerns and Historical Fiction, neither of which I’m fond of, but a Stephen Bly western or historical was different. His storytelling and voice kept me engaged and interested. His love for the places and the stories he told showed on every page.

There are many things that can and ought to be said about Stephen Bly, but my experience with this multi-published author over a period of a few days back in 2008, and that’s what I’ll speak to.

I went to the 2008 Oregon Christian Writer’s conference where Stephen Bly spoke. While it was an expensive conference, his presentations were worth the price of admission.

Shoot Somebody: During his presentation, he talked about how to get your novel going again and one tip I’ll never forget is, “Shoot somebody.”  By this he meant to have have a character get shot or have something else dramatic happen that brings the story to a head. To this day, when I get stuck in a story, and I don’t want to do, the thought comes to my mind, “Shoot somebody.”

Write Short Paragraphs: This helped me a lot in both my fiction and non-fiction writing. I come from a family of long dense paragraph writers. This is really bad in fiction as readers tend to give up when they see that.

Bly taught us to use short choppy paragraph to build tension and forward the action, and it made a big difference for me in my writing life as I’ve implemented that.

Dialogue First: While this isn’t a method I’ve tried, it was one of the most interesting highlights of the conference. Bly did dialogue first writing, where he would write all the dialogue for a scene and then fill in the tags for who was speaking. I’ll never forget when he read several pages of an upcoming work with dialogue only, and the audience had a good laugh listening, with no idea who was saying or what they were doing while they were speaking. It won’t work for everyone, but for him it did.

Our Writing is Ministry: This may have been greatest lesson I learned from Stephen Bly and his book, Paperback Writers.

In the novel, Paul James Watson is  a writer going through a career crisis as he finishes up his latest book. Watson is a professional novelist whose books sell a steady number of copies:  just enough to keep the publisher interested in more books in his Toby McKenna series. However, Watson has not achieved critical acclaim or the fame many of us authors would like to experience.

In the course of Watson’s adventures, he converses with his lead character, and during one of these conversations, Watson is able to put his writing into perspective leading to one of the most powerful passages I ever read on the life of a Christian writer:

“I got an inflated idea about my writing. I needed to back up and see it from the Lord’s point of view. I’m a paperback writer, Toby. I’m not a world-famous novelist. Not a Pulitzer Prize-winning author. I’m just like in the old Beatles song. But I’m good at it. And it’s my place that the Lord has provided.

“They don’t study my novels in English lit. classes at Stanford. But there’s a single mom, struggling to make ends meet working as a clerk-typist in the admissions office, who tackles those preschoolers in late Friday night in that one-bedroom apartment #421 on 16th Street in Palo Alto, and then curls up on the faded pea-green sofa she inherited from her granny, pulls a tattered afghan over her feet, and reads my book until she falls asleep about three in the morning. And for five straight hours, she isn’t worried about car payments, or alimony checks that never arrive, or little sissy constantly getting sick at day care, or the jerk at the office who brushed up against her backside in the elevator, or her mother’s comments about her marriage failure, or the fact that she’s gained six pounds since Christmas. For those few hours it’s just her and Toby McKenna, having one incredible adventure after another.

“She will fall asleep with a sweet dream of a dashing, though distracted, detective. She’ll wake up in the real world, but for a few hours we gave her mind and body and soul a break. She got to live in your world. And because of that, she’ll tackle the new day with just a little more strength, courage, direction, and, I hope, more faith.

“Oh, the critics don’t think much of my books. But the critics don’t have to carry a three-year-old up two flights of steps every evening at 5:45 and twice on Sundays.

This quote brought home to me that writing of any sort can minister to those around us.  It also means that if we are blessing and ministering to those who God wants us to touch, that we have fulfilled our purpose as writers.

Stephen Bly ministered to tens of thousands of people through his writing and his books will continue to be blessed and comforted by his paperback writings.  He also was  a great blessing to his fellow writers.

Our prayers are with his wife, Janet and their family as they go through this time of loss and mourning.

How I Made the Biggest Mistake of the Speculative Writer

So, I have a great idea for a series. The year is 2080 and America is no longer the world’s great superpower. In a treaty with China, which refinanced the national debt, America was required to change its budgeting practices, so its national debt stopped growing and the Chinese government could have a stable and reliable source of interest income. The Chinese have ventured space, setting up mines on the Moon, Mars, and Moons of Jupiter using forced labor.

Meanwhile, back in America, the tax rates are absurd with the average American paying 75% of their income in taxes, with top rates hitting 90%.  Bart Braddock is the only American spaceship Captain and earns money primarily by flying supplies to college university research facilities which are required to hire an American to fly their supplies in, if an American ship is available.

Enter Captain Wong, an American-born man who renounced his U.S. Citizenship to get all the benefits of Chinese citizenships. However, Wong wanted to pay the much lower Chinese Tax Rate, so he would be able to save money for his grand adventure-a trip into deep space to establish a new colony away from the hard tyranny of the Chinese government and the soft tyranny American government. Wong wants to recruit Braddock to be his first mate, so that he can recruit Christians to serve on the ship.

It’s an interesting concept. However, when I sat down to write the story, I ran into problem in my wife’s review of the story. The question came down to this, “Who is Captain Braddock?” and why should readers care about our hero?

I’d made the ultimate mistake of science fiction and fantasy writers. I fell in love with the concept and forgot to get a grasp of the characters.  The only thing I think I knew coming into the initial scene was that Captain Braddock loved clam chowder. Somehow, that’s not enough to base a story on.

I also have to confess I may have made another mistake that’s common to all  Christian fiction, an that is making my non-Christian characters more interesting and compelling. Captain Wong is the revolutionary genius who has hatched a plan to re-establish liberty in another galaxy. Captain Braddock–well, he likes sea food and he’s a Christian. It seems to me that many of us authors suffer under the belief that becoming a Christian sucks all of the life and vigor from a person, so they are little more than dull, flat, and limited. In many stories that lead up to a character’s conversion as the end, there’s a suggestion that conversion ends the character’s ability to interesting and compelling.

So, I have quite a quandry to work myself out of. But at least I know I’m in it.