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Monday, January 26, 2015

Why I Decided to Write for the General Market

I entered into the field of writing by way of Christians and the Christian market. At the time (2005), this seemed like the natural thing to do for me. I'd become a believer in 1980, pastored a church for a period of time, and was spiritually restless, wanting to find new avenues for creativity and spiritual growth. When the Christian magazine I subscribed to held a short story contest, I decided to enter and earned an honorable mention. A spark was struck. From there, I joined a Christian writers group. This led to the publication of other short stories and a growing familiarity with the Christian market. Eventually, I wrote a novel aimed at this market, acquired an agent, and was signed to a two book contract with a Christian publishing house. 

However, over the years, I've wrestled a lot with the Christian market and have never felt quite at home there. 

To be clear, I'm not one of those who labels all Christian fiction as mediocre, preachy, and poorly crafted junk. Over the last decade, I've read many terrific works published as Christian fiction and met many gifted, hard-working Christian writers. The caricatures of Christian fiction as being shallow and crappy are mostly unfair. There are legitimate reasons to write for Christians and remaining in the Christian market can be a smart endeavor for some. I don't slight those who choose to write in that genre. Furthermore, my experience in Christian publishing circles, the writers and readers I've met, the agents and editors I've met and worked with, have been wonderful. All to say, my experience as a Christian fiction author is mostly good. 

So why move to the general market? 

Well, there's no one single reason. Rather, it's a confluence of different feelings and impressions. Here's a few: 

  • I've grown tired of the narrow theological strictures that dominate and define Christian fiction. More than once my stories have been parsed for doctrinal integrity and found wanting. This is frustrating because I consider myself fairly orthodox. I believe in the innerancy of Scripture, the deity of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, etc. Nevertheless, today's Christian fiction readers demand fairly strict adherence to a set of doctrinal parameters in their fiction. (This is especially problematic as a speculative fiction writer; being free to actually SPECULATE while still being held to strict theological parameters is quite difficult!) 
  • I've wearied of the argument that Christian fiction must be "clean." Having trafficked in "the real world" most of my life, I'm used to people acting and speaking in ways that aren't always pretty. Or conducive to my faith or personal values. Which is probably why I write characters who act similarly. Christians like to say that God accepts us as we are. Apparently, they do not extend similar grace to the characters in their novels. Thus, Christian fiction has come to be defined as the absence of profanity, sex, and excessive violence. Elsewhere, I've described this as a sort of "white magic" -- the belief that keeping certain words and images out of my story makes it intrinsically less worldly and more holy. 
  • Christian fiction potentially nurtures and perpetuates a dangerously narrow, unhealthy subculture. As I've written before, contemporary Evangelical fiction is tethered to Fundamentalist roots. Much of the Christian art industry — Christian film / fiction / music — is a reaction against secularism. This posture can be traced back to early Fundamentalism’s withdraw from many American institutions like politics and entertainment. Holiness, for Fundamentalists, came to be defined in terms of “negatives” — no smoking, no drinking, no movies, no makeup, no dancing, etc., etc. Much of the evangelical counter culture was rooted in this cultural separation. Likewise, Christian fiction appeals to and nurtures this idea of "separation." Our fiction is different than other fiction. So while being "salt and light" means interacting with the "bland and light-less," the Christian fiction market theoretically avoids all such "worldly" spoilage, preaches to the choir, and potentially isolates us from the marketplaces of ideas. 
  • The demographics of the Christian market are not "speculative fiction" friendly. I've written a lot about this subject (like THIS) and won't cover that ground again here. Suffice to say, with 80-some percent of Christian fiction titles being Amish, romance, and women's fiction, speculative fiction writers and fans have managed little traction in the Christian market and have found a shortage of spec titles offered. 
  • I simply want to reach a larger, more "spec savvy," audience. As a fan of Dean Koontz, Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, Neil Gaiman, Lovecraft, and Stephen King, I want to engage similar readers. Interestingly enough, many of these fans are Christians (or, at the least, not averse to a Christian worldview). However, these fans are not limited to the "Christian fiction" aisle. Nor is their reading confined to "clean," theologically tight, fictional fare. Hardcore spec readers graze in larger pastures than the current Christian market cultivates. And that's where I'd like to be. 
Needless to say, moving from the Christian market to the general market will probably be a bit of a balancing act. 

On one hand will be the issue of balancing spiritual content to a "secular" audience. Christian writers will often say that their stories are too religious for the general market and too gritty or unorthodox for the Christian market. That's part of the problem -- if that IS a problem -- I'm getting at here. I want my general market stories to contain spiritual content. This doesn't mean that all my stories will contain an overt religious theme or strong Christian character. But no writer can completely divorce their worldview from their stories. So while I'm not writing to preach to my readers, I'm not afraid to admit I have a worldview and beliefs that, with some excavation, can be uncovered in my general market novels. Will this turn some readers off? Maybe. 

On the other hand will be my attempt to balance an existing platform developed in the Christian market with a broader, less "religious" audience. So this is the opposite issue -- trying to maintain enough spiritual / religious themes to engage Christian readers. Sure, a savvy Christian reader does not require all their doctrinal i's dotted and t's crossed. Nevertheless, as one with a huge interest in theology and philosophy, I respect that readers seek stories that resonate with the Truth. A potential difficulty will be engaging readers who have bought my books because of the "Christian" elements, while not scaring them off with the more fanciful, gritty, unorthodox elements. 

Bottom line: I want to write stories that contain spiritual themes and religious content but are free to noodle around with weird science, un-orthodox ideas, unholy characters, who sometimes think bad thoughts and use bad language Risky? Perhaps. Either way, for the first time in ten years I have published a novel that is not tagged as "Christian fiction." It's titled The Ghost Box. There's monsters, ghosts, angels, pseudo-science, and profanity. It took me a while to get here, but frankly, it was worth the journey.

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Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The Ghost Box, The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea. You can visit his website at www.mikeduran.com, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

4 comments:

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Great post Mike. I felt a kinship with each and every point. And I must admit I was so intrigued by your cover...I went and bought it for my iPad!

Tamara Leigh said...

Love your post, Mike! Thank you for sharing.

Elise M Stone said...

I am so with you, Mike, except I write mystery rather than SF. I think I'll give your new book a try.

Rochelle Deans said...

Thanks for writing! I definitely agree about the market. The story I'm working on right now definitely falls in that "too religious, but too unorthodox" place. It will be interesting to see if I can get it picked up at all with a main character who struggles with his faith (and it's a distorted Christianity anyway), takes communion, wrestles with God...