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Christian Fiction? Three Ways to Market Your Book of Faith

As we started discussing last week, there are multiple ways to write, publish, and market your book of Christian faith. We are going to focus on traditionally published fiction, as the rules for nonfiction and self-publishing are different in this instance. So, let’s dive in!

1. The Christian Fiction Genre

The Christian Fiction genre has separated itself from other traditional publishing genres in order to promote Christian values and beliefs. The content is intended to be appropriate for all ages. Though in theory these books extend the Gospel by teaching nonbelievers about Jesus, the books published at Christian publishing houses tend to be geared specifically towards conservative females of the Evangelical faith. Janette Oke’s novels from the 80s are perhaps the most enduring of the genre, and the genre has now spawned subgenres ranging from Karen Kingsbury’s contemporary novels to Beverly Lewis’ Amish romances.

In researching the genre, I learned that the CBA (formerly the Christian Booksellers Association and now in some sort of transition stage) determines what is acceptable for the Christian Fiction genre and what is not. The debate about the CBA’s control of Christian Fiction publishing has been going on for years – see this article from 2014 for a brief overview. Even traditionally published authors wish to see the quality of writing published by the Christian Fiction market improve, but they don’t see that happening when the current business model is still successful.

That’s where option number 2 comes in.

2. Explicitly Christian Books in the Secular Market

It is possible for books with explicitly Christian themes to be published under the secular banner of simply “Fiction.” While they may not be the most prominent books on the shelf, these authors have to fight ten times harder to compete in a saturated market, so the books tend to have higher quality writing and more complex themes than their Christian-classified counterparts. Because the CBA doesn’t determine what bookstores carrying simply “contemporary fiction” or “literary fiction” sell, these books can also delve into deep issues and toy with more than one perspective.

To be honest, these books tend to be the only adult fiction books I am passionate about. My favorites are the sweetly humorous Mitford series by Jan Karon, but I also love the slightly darker, literary-focused Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. The main characters in both are preachers, one Episcopalian and one Congregationalist. The books tastefully wrestle with issues like poverty, broken family relationships, and addictions. In Gilead, the preacher even pulls from atheist texts to show a well-rounded and deeply considered view of the world. All in all, there is much more freedom of content in the secular market, but the writing also must be top-notch to compete for a spot in publication against all other fictional creations.

That leads us to option number 3, a different take on the same genre.

3. Implicitly Christian Books in the Secular Market

These books perhaps have the richest literary history of all the genres. They pull from centuries of themes, conventions, and imagery to create texts with layered meaning. On the surface, these books have a storyline pleasurable in and of itself. However, a deeper reading unveils allusions to Christ’s miraculous work, His parabolic teachings, and His redemptive death. These texts are why we all got mad in high school and thought the teacher was just making it up. In fact, these authors do deep thought work to create richly complex stories that slow readers down and make them think, although the transaction does require a reader who is willing to put in the work.

The beauty of this type of writing is that it allows the spread of God’s word to people antagonist to Christianity. It can plant seeds of faith by promoting the Christian values of justice, benevolence, and love. The downfall comes in that many people may still miss the message. Without doing a lot of digging and coming to the text with a background knowledge of the Bible and perhaps even Protestant or Catholic theology, the main point of the message is hidden under less intense themes and the plot itself. In some ways, these books are magic – how else would Christian texts be taught in public schools these days as they are in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? In others, they can be so convoluted or grotesque, like Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, that finding the Christian message can give the reader a headache.


There’s more to say for and against each of these genres. As with anything, each genre has shining stars and bad apples. Next week, we’ll start looking at the pros and cons of books published in each of these styles.

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Are Christian Fiction Books Worth Writing?

It’s a question I thought was obvious in high school. Why, of course I should write Christian Fiction books! The books would let me tell others about Jesus. The stories would provide an escape for those enduring suffering. The content would be appropriate for all ages from middle school girls to aging women. What could be wrong with the stack of pastel books with scrawling fonts that I brought home from the library every summer?

Then I started college. I walked up the steep, creaking floors of the English department and dropped my book bag next to the small metal desk. I took out my notebook, colored pens, and planner. And I overheard the most shocking thing.

The sophomores hated Christian Fiction. They didn’t just mildly dislike certain authors or maintain a respect for the genre but dislike reading it for themselves. They held a passionate distaste for the characters, plots, and writers. My brain was spinning, and I felt like a fool. I believed my life’s work was to write Christian Fiction, and here, at a Christian college, I heard more backlash on the genre than I had heard in my public high school back home.

It took several weeks before I got to reopen a Christian Fiction book and analyze what the other students were talking about. I was shocked to find that they were right. The plot was boring; the characters sniveled; the setting was so nondescript that the book could have taken place anywhere. What had happened to the great books of faith that got me through the hardest times of my life? Now, books where characters grappled with the question of good and evil ended with the character magically getting a dose of faith without an answer. That didn’t help me when I wasn’t sure I believed God’s promises were for me anymore.

I spent the rest of my college career debating if Christian Fiction books are worth writing. Both my capstone and thesis projects centered on the topic. I studied critics’ analyses, the rules of the genre, and commonalities in the stories. The issue of Christian genres became a topic very close to my heart.

In that spirit, I’m going to use my Friday blog posts to do a deep dive on the topic. Next week, we’ll discuss if books of faith must be written under the banner of Christian Fiction. What are your experiences with the Christian Fiction genre? Let’s talk about it in the comments!

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Faith Music

Today, I drove along curving, green back roads and took the long way home. I just breathe better when I see houses and farmland dotting the horizon instead of various bits of car wreckage remaining on the shoulder of the interstate. Naturally, I wanted to listen to some good, soul-soaring music.

I turned on the local Christian channel and heard a song that, despite having great lyrics, has been played so constantly in church and on the radio that I wanted to punch the “Search” button through the dashboard to get a different song to play.

Boots and BibleThus, I switched to The Legend, a channel from iHeart Radio that plays all of the songs from The Big 98 that were popular around the turn of the century. It’s like a time capsule for music! The station became really invaluable to me as I started to write my book, but I also enjoy hearing the first several chords of a song and still being able to sing every word from twenty years ago.

Country music has its roots in Gospel music, and that connection shows up more often than you’d think. Songs like “That’s What I Love About Sunday” (Craig Morgan), “Where Were You” (Alan Jackson), and “Jesus Take the Wheel” (Carrie Underwood) all talk explicitly about the places where faith and life collide. Even songs that don’t mention God explicitly often have Christian values like love and concern for others at the heart of the lyrics. And that connection to faith hasn’t diminished over time­– Old Dominion’s “No Such Thing as a Broken Heart” parallels Matthew 5:38-40 with the command to turn the other cheek. Even John Mayer’s new song In the Blood, played on Sirius’ The Highway, reminds me of the hymn, “There is power, power, wonder working power/ In the blood of the Lamb!” (Lewis E. Jones, 1899).

 

Sunset

Regardless, there are enough Country hook-up songs on the radio that I don’t need to listen to the genre all the time. I do feel calmer and generally more even-keel when I listen to only Christian music. But why does it have to be so boring? It shouldn’t be a struggle for me to choose Christian music; I should want to listen to it because it draws me closer to my Savior!

In the meantime, I thank God that He shows up in Country music, too, and reminds me of His grace in the beauty of a pastel sunset over rolling cow pastures.

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Why English Majors Can’t Read

This past week I met several new people at a church event, and the topic of books frequently came up. Though the worst question to ask an English major is “what is your favorite book,” it seemed to be the most popular. Despite resulting in a list of books (including commentary) rather than a single title, the introvert in me was thankful for a topic I could easily discuss. And people were happy to discuss books with me! Apparently I have found a church for writers.

I learned something interesting in these conversations. For readers and writers alike, everyone agreed that the Christian Fiction genre needs improvement. They often avoided the books because religion was forced down people’s throats and the characters were so flat. In one conversation, a girl discussed a favorite series from her youth that she recently reread. She was concerned that the male love interest ignored the protagonist for three books until suddenly the characters were engaged. She said a girl deserved both a good guy and for him to be interested in her, not one or the other.

Bookshelf BlogI was pleased that people who hadn’t studied English had many of the same concerns for books that I learned as an English major. After all, being an English major tends to ruin a person’s love of reading. After studying the craft of writing for several years, I can’t open a book anymore without judging every sentence for full descriptions and realistic characters. It’s hard to enjoy reading because I can’t stop myself from rewriting the books along the way. I’ve met many English majors who have the same problem. Once an English major learns to read critically, it is hard to return to that imaginative world that caused them to fall in love with reading in the first place. It’s comforting to know that the audience has the same concerns.

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Machine Dreams

Thoughts on Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips

  • As with Out of Peel Tree, the fragmented stories are hard to get into, but cover a lot more ground in time and setting.
  • The use of letters for Mitch’s war memories do a nice job of characterizing him and his relationships with others through the use of small details.
  • I was confused by the name in the first chapter’s title. I thought the daughter was named Jean, not the wife, who was speaking.
  • The book has a heavy, dark feeling. There is lots of trouble. Almost everything that could be wrong is. (Alcoholic men, trauma from war, cancer, secret abortions, a teenager trying to drown his girlfriend because he learns she is pregnant, death, memories of serial murders, debt, an invalid child, massive age gaps between spouses, farms taken over and strip-mined, abandonment by parents, an immigrant with leprosy exiled to the woods…) All of this dark content makes the book harder to read.
  • Phillips does use specific details such as the names of cars, lyrics from music, and details about the VFW club.
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Out of Peel Tree

Thoughts on reading Out of Peel Tree by Laura Long

  • By fragmenting the novel through short stories, Long could cover an impressive 2 generations of time. This led to some flat sections that told, rather than showed, the passage of time. The inconsistent narrator to style ratio made the overall story harder to follow. (For example, some Corina sections would be in 3rd limited and others would be in 1st person. The writing style of the stories, or the voice Corina reflected, was thus inconsistent enough to create discord in the reader. This issue was exacerbated when other narrators such as Billie interacted with her.) In general, the 1st person stories felt flatter, more limited, and more abstract.
  • Long did not include dialect or metaphors distinct to the regions she wrote about. This made it harder to understand the setting; I did not know the family’s socioeconomic status unless Long stated it, which I found disadvantageous because I never got to immerse myself in the world of the story. Though Long did provide several details of setting, they never matched any preconceived notions I had or provided enough details to overturn my misunderstandings. Instead, the details led me to be confused about what was going on in the story.
  • I appreciated the risks Long took with her writing and the way her poetry clearly influenced her novel. Several stories reflected a staccato rhythm gleaned from writing lots of poetry.
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Country Music and Running Away

This past week, I found radio stations that played the country songs popular on the radio in my childhood. The first day I listened to the 90’s and early-2000’s favorites, I estimated that at least 65%, if not up to 85%, of the songs alluded to running away in some form or fashion, usually for love. Trisha Yearwood’s “She’s in Love with the Boy,” Sara Evans’ “Suds in the Bucket,” and more taught me that running away to get married was all part of falling in love. They gave me the idea that being with the one you loved was all that mattered. If you didn’t run away with the one you love, you could end up like Jo Dee Messina in “I’m Alright”–alone and trying to pretend your life was a little better than it actually was.

I’m sure that this music would influence the characters in my story, too. I love country music, but they never connected the running-away-songs with the leaving-and-being-left-ones. I bet Dawson and Cadence, too, will struggle with understanding that not all running-away-songs have perfect endings when the guitar quits strumming.

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Glorybound

Thoughts upon finishing Glorybound by Jessie Van Eerden

  • Though the beginning was hard to get into because of its dense content and sad tone, I couldn’t put it down for the last 100 pages. It picked up speed toward the end as everything came together and everyone got healed. There were shorter sections and quicker shifts between perspectives.
  • Perspectives: younger sister Aimee, older sister Crystal, friend Aubrey, father Cord (through essays for Aubrey’s class), and mother Dotte
  • Ronnie, Crystal’s beloved, is the tipping point of the novel. His snake bite leads to all of the healing for the characters individually and with each other.
    • The book started with many threads and brought them all together at Ronnie’s snake bite.
  • The spiritual aspects of the novel are talked about and yearned for (such as footwashings, all night prayer vigils, and Aimee’s unfulfilled yearning to speak in tongues.) The healing at the end is felt in the reader. A reader does not have to be Pentecostal to believe God worked and a miracle happened, though this is never overtly stated in the book.
  • The novel’s action stops right at the moment of healing for all of the individual characters. Readers know what will happen next and how things will be resolved, but it is not given or shown in the novel. This gives the reader greater authority in the reading.
  • Dialect is used, but only for the most dominant words (ex. “again” in place of “against”). More dominant is West Virginia syntax and metaphors (ex. “close to the bone.”)
  • Main question of the novel:
    • What do people do, Crystal thought, when they go untouched, when they ain’t ok with being touched?” (Van Eerden, 188).
    • Crystal gives answers for the other main characters of the novel, whom Crystal was just contemplating. She finishes with herself and summarizes the answer for everyone: “They quit their singing. They go without a healing” (Van Eerden, 188).

In the end, I really enjoyed the book! Van Eerden’s masterful weaving of plot strands made up for all of my frustrations with the heavy, dark tone at the beginning. She did an excellent job of creating strong feelings in the reader, both bitter and hopeful.

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Point of View

Yesterday was a big day for the first five pages of my story. I met with my mentor and also had a workshop. Everything seemed positive, and I feel good continuing work on this project. I was particularly encouraged when my professor said the words were flying off the page. She mentioned a couple of spots where the sentences interrupted the flow and said I would catch them later if I read the draft out loud. I figure I’ll catch those spots when I read my draft to family for the first time. Overall I felt encouraged!

The main question in both meetings seemed to be the number of perspectives I wrote from considering this will be a novel-length work. My professor was satisfied with my initial response for what is gained by showing multiple perspectives, but I will have to be careful not to add too many. My mentor said that the more perspectives a story has, the more experimental it is. We all felt like we’ve read books that do this before, but we couldn’t think of any.

My friend today reminded me of one series I read that might fit this style. The Christian Fiction genre seems to switch perspectives much more frequently than general Fiction would, so this style feels natural to me and seems experimental to those who are wider read than I am. For example, I believe Dee Henderson’s books change perspectives within chapters, and she has many narrators. I recall thoroughly enjoying her books when I read them. They felt so real and made me want to be a part of the O’Malley clan. The books did not skirt around difficult issues, either.

I will have to look into this.

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Genre Mapping

I’m not sure what genre I’m trying to write. My first explanation led professors to call it a “novel in stories.” Upon further discussion, I think I have managed to totally confuse us all. Thus, I drew a map.

Maybe this is just a normal novel with many narrators. Maybe it is more novel-in-stories than I thought. Maybe it is a hybrid.

I suppose I shall just write and see where it takes me. Part of me likes the idea of a slightly more disjointed book. That way, I could jump time and note it by time stamps or alluding to national events rather than a flowery paragraph of how everything has changed and an oh, isn’t it dramatic?. The characters could show the changes for themselves in how they act, interact, and react.

Lots to think about, and probably lots more to pray about.