Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Guest Blogger ~ Alison Strobel

Alison Strobel writes stories that stay with you about life, love, and faith. She lives in Colorado with her husband, Dan, with whom she has co-authored a children s book, and their two young daughters. When she's not writing, she's spending too much time on the Internet, crocheting, or playing with her girls. Visit her website.

The Mechanics of Crafting 
Brutally Honest Fiction

There’s a time and a place for books that spare us the burdens of reality, that allow us to lose ourselves for a few hours in stories that make us feel warm inside, and leave us with smiles on our faces. We need these books when we’re overwhelmed by the darkness of the world and tired of the depressing news we get from the media.

There’s another side to that coin—times when we need to grapple with life, to wrestle with the darkness and hear someone else asking the same questions that plague us, and doing it through fiction allows us that opportunity.

But writing that kind of fiction—brutally honest fiction that stares the sins of the world in the face and shines the light of Christ into them—is a difficult task, requiring the author to walk a tightrope between authenticity and voyeurism, between being honest and being graphic. It’s the challenge I faced when writing my latest release, Reinventing Rachel, and I want to discuss here the whys and hows for those who are seeking to write the same way.

Why Brutally Honest Fiction?

Not every reader is looking for this kind of writing. As with every book you write, think first about who your reader is before tackling brutally honest fiction. For me, the answer was somewhat unique this time around, as I wanted to target a segment of the market often missed by Christian fiction: college-aged readers.

My protagonist is a coffee-slinging recent Christian college graduate looking to apply to grad school. She is just a step or two ahead of my target reader in life, which makes her more relateable than the usually late-20’s/early-30’s protagonist of the majority of contemporary Christian fiction.

This reader is also inherently skeptical and, in the case of those at secular colleges, living alongside people whom frequently making God-dishonoring decisions. This kind of reader isn’t as interested in softer stories. They’re in the process of grabbing life with both hands, and I believe they will more deeply connect with a story that depicts characters doing the same.

How Do You Write Brutally Honest Fiction?

For me, successfully writing brutally honest fiction requires attention to three things. The first is the fine line between being honest and being graphic. Honesty makes sure the reader knows what happened—but being graphic gives the reader every gory detail. 

Honesty means allowing really awful things to happen, because that’s what happens in real life—but being graphic means explaining those really awful things gratuitously. I don’t think graphic writing has a place in Christian fiction. It is not edifying, and can leave images with readers that soil their minds and are difficult to shake.

Think of the difference between a movie scene in which two lovers are seen kissing as the scene fades away, as opposed to a scene in which we witness their naked roll in the hay. With the first scene, we get the idea—we know they’re in love, and for the purpose of the story that’s all we need to know. In the second, we’re witness to the most intimate form of that love, a form that we have no business watching. We must include what is necessary to be true to the story, but not embellish it with unnecessary details that paint a lurid picture.

The second thing to which I pay attention is real-life reactions. When I write a scene about a Christian character, I don’t consider whether his or her actions are Biblical. I consider whether or not they’re believable. Character driven fiction has to judge how a character would respond based on who they truly are, not why they wish they were or who we, the writer, want them to be. I try to be as skeptical as I can about my characters’ actions. If someone said or did this in real life, would I roll my eyes? If so, it gets deleted. (Unless, of course, an eye-rolling reaction is what I’m going for!)

Bending the wills and words of characters to achieve an end goal or fulfill an agenda leads to stilted and inauthentic stories. It robs the reader of any measure of trust in the character—trust that they will live their lives in a way that makes sense in the world we know.

The third area I watch is my own expectations. I try not to think about the expectations people have of or for Christian fiction. In all honestly, I don’t think of myself as a Christian fiction novelist. I think of myself as a novelist who writes fiction that features Christian characters and which are written from a Christian worldview. I think there’s a big difference between the two, too nuanced to go into here, but it affects the expectations that I—and, I think, my readers—have of my books.

I also try not to think of my books as having a message until after I’ve written them. Writing fiction to get across a particular message almost always comes across as preachy and heavy-handed. Instead, I focus on the characters and their goals and the events that shape them, and let them live out their lives and see what happens. When the story is over, the message is always loud and clear, but it’s because the characters have conveyed it—not me.

Reinventing Rachel went through four distinct forms before becoming what it is now. That’s because I was working through these things—the fine line between honesty and being graphic, depicting realistic actions, and removing my own expectations and message from the story—as I worked on each draft.

Once I managed to figure out the appropriate approach to each area, the story came together. Take a look at your own manuscript and think about how you can pull back on the graphic details to let readers use their own imaginations, how you can tweak your characters’ actions to reflect how people really act, and how you can erase your own expectations from the story so it blooms and grows more organically. What you’ll be left with is brutally honest fiction that can open the door for readers to grapple with their own lives and struggles—and a story that grips the reader every time they open the book.

God let Rachel Westing down. For twenty-six years she’s done everything by the book; she figures He should have her back. But then she learns her fiancĂ© is cheating on her. Her parents are getting a divorce. And her Christian mentor has a pill addiction. Where is God in all this? Nowhere, as far as Rachel can see. Wounded, bitter, and with a shattered faith, she quits her job and goes across the country to live with Daphne—her childhood best friend whose soul Rachel once thought she was meant to save.

Confident, successful, fun-loving Daphne sets about helping Rachel reinvent herself, and for a while it’s exciting. But when another tragedy shakes Rachel to the core, what little bit of self-possession she has left begins to unravel. A true-to-life story that will draw you in and keep you biting your nails until the end.


Marti Pieper said...

Lots of deep yet practical insights here, Allison. I've come to believe the more we live our stories--get inside our characters' heads and look from the inside out--the better we write them. Thanks for sharing the lessons gained from your rewrites.

Sally Bradley said...

Alison, thanks for your thoughts. I'm working on something that might fall in the same category, and I've wondered how to deal with aspects of it. I'll be referring to words a few times, I think. :)

Bruce Judisch said...

Excellent interview. Lots of discussion these days on being honest vs. being graphic in Christian literature. I've not seen the issue better addressed that here.

Many thanks, Alison.

Alison Strobel Morrow said...

Thank you so much for your comments, everyone! I was actually a little nervous writing about this--glad to see it was well-received. :)

Ane Mulligan said...

Thanks, Alison! Reinventing Rachel was a beautifully written book, and brutally honest. :) One of my favorite reads for 2010!

Ane Mulligan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
thjacks said...

I agree that brutally honest is an important contribution to bookshelves everywhere. Isn't that what the parables of Jesus were. Thanks so much.