Dreaming Up Books

Authors get ideas for their books in all kinds of ways. I myself get story ideas from a lovely combo of imagination, life experiences, personal convictions and passion, and, yep–sometimes my story ideas come from dreams.

I don’t just mean dreams as in wishes or aspirations, but the actual dreams I have when I go to sleep. Sometimes they’re nighttime mini-sagas that I find so entertaining or moving, I have to write ’em out!

Come to Yourself, Mr. Jones is heavily based on one such saga where the leading man was originally a music artist, movie star, and professional athlete all rolled into one. It made natural sense in the dream, but I had to iron it out in my mind once I decided to develop the dream into something readable for the public.

So, then. What’s the hero’s career in the story I wrote? I know what it is, and readers may or may not piece it together. But I purposely left it a little ambiguous because the hero’s career is rather beside the point. It’s his status, not his specific job, that matters to the plot. Besides, sometimes it’s fun to leave things up to a little interpretation.

Eminence is based on one of my dreams set in historical Japan, somewhere between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. There are things I’ve found fascinating about samurai culture over the years, but when I decided to develop my samurai era mini-saga for readers, I didn’t want to tie down or confine its themes about personal identity and the value of humanity to a particular culture.

So, I worked the dreams’ themes and its major scenes into an unidentified (made-up) country with fictional customs during an unspecified historical era, with characters of no specified race(s). I even took the characters’ names from a hodgepodge of origins and incorporated a few different languages into the dialogue and narration, to keep the basis diverse. (Albeit I bent some language rules here and there, since the characters’ language is also unspecified.) It’s humanity, period, not certain races or nationalities, that Eminence means to represent.

And then there’s Love Unfeigned. I gathered key scenes from about twelve dreams and wove them together for this one, with pieces of my own life sprinkled in. Yeah, I know such a mishmash could have the potential to turn into a disjointed mess, but even I marveled at the way the scenes began flowing together, once I realized who the heroine, hero, and villain would be.

It’s like characters lead the way in these matters at times. “You–with the pen. Here’s what we’re gonna do, here. Write it down for us.”

I’ve got several more mini-sagas and saga scenes stashed away that I’ve not developed into publishable material. I keep ’em around just in case a writing project arises to which I can say, “Hey! I’ve got just the dream for that!”

Think about it. Has anything awesome ever come out of one of your dreams?

“Political Correctness” in Fiction

It happened again. My comments on someone else’s blog post prompted me to write a post of my own. This time, the discussion was at the Sweet Americana Sweethearts blog, where author Heather Blanton addresses the practice of sanitizing historical fiction to make it polite, palatable, and politically correct for twenty-first century readers.

Without rehashing that whole post, I’ll note that I agree with Heather. Trying to clean up history to make ourselves comfortable is indeed dangerous. The more inaccurate we are about the past, then the more we misremember it, and as the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

With that said, when it comes to race, culture, and history, it can be easy sometimes to paint over everything, or everyone, with too broad a brush. We can think to ourselves, “Well, yeah, people were prejudiced or just said ignorant things back then, but they couldn’t really help it. Where they came from, that’s just how it was.” So it’s good to keep in mind that while there may be a mainstream idea or habit within a society, there also tend to be people who don’t conform to the mainstream of their time. In the past (as it still happens in the present), not every person thought or behaved the same way as “everybody else.” Light and truth are constants, even in a period or place when light isn’t prevalent or the truth isn’t popular.

Nonetheless, when it comes to various areas of life, including writing about the past, there’s a difference between being politically correct and being culturally competent or sensitive. As an author, when it’s time to write about unsavory parts of history, and you don’t want to offend readers, it’s a great idea to check your motives. Are you trying not to be offensive because you genuinely care about the people concerned, or do you just want to prevent negative reactions from coming in your direction?

In his book, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege, author Ken Wytsma highlights some good stuff about following the silver rule versus following the golden one. The main principle there can apply to political correctness and writing.

Political correctness can oftentimes adhere to the silver rule: “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do unto you.” It can focus on trying not to do something, being polite at all costs in an attempt not to offend anyone. Being polite so as to avoid the trouble of backlash, whether or not the actual human beings you might hurt are your real or main concern.

In contrast, cultural competence applies the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Imagine yourself in the place of the person or culture you’re writing about, even if it’s only a minor character or a small aspect of the plot. Imagine yourself in the place of readers who are a part of that culture. Consider their triumphs and their plight, past and present. Consider how you’d feel if the people in your book weren’t “other people” but they were your own friends, your own family. Consider how you’d feel if the person in your book was you. What, then, would be your attitude as you approach telling that person’s story or depicting aspects of that person’s culture or lot in life?

Political correctness often comes from a place of fear, while cultural competence comes from a place of love.

Being a culturally competent author doesn’t mean you have to whitewash, misrepresent, or try to erase history. One of my all-time favorite examples of cultural competence in entertainment is a television show, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. In ways big and small, the show is historically accurate. It doesn’t shy away from depicting racism, injustice, and ignorance. It illustrates complex scenarios, brings substantive characters with room to grow or shift, and it relates powerful, relevant messages about love, acceptance, and justice without trying to ignore or erase the facts of the past.

When you’re a culturally competent author, it doesn’t mean you gloss over, sugarcoat, or tiptoe around uncomfortable social elements because you’re terrified of stepping on anyone’s toes. Rather, it means you’re active about finding ways to show love through your writing; to show that while ignorance did and does exist, it doesn’t mean it was or is okay, and that it’s possible and necessary for us to do better. There are different ways authors can convey this, whether they weave it into a plot, reflect it through a character, infuse it into a story’s overall tone, include a thoughtful word directly to readers before or after the story, or what have you.

On a related note, for authors who do or want to write competently about people of different races or cultures than their own, it’s smart to have a diverse circle. If everyone in your critiquing or publishing circle, or in your life, is pretty much the same as you are, then you may need to widen your circle. But that’s another topic to unpack.

Anyhow. A little consideration and/or creativity can go a long way in getting a message of light across in fiction, even when depicting flawed characters or regrettable portions of history.

You don’t have to write from a place of fear when you can write from a place of love.

 

Christian Fiction That Doesn’t Mention Christ?

It’s something I’ve been pondering for years.

There seems to be a good number of readers who don’t consider a book to be Christian Fiction unless they see something explicitly Christian in it. Characters praying, studying their Bibles, learning from sermons in church, talking about God or coming to Jesus, etc. The basic idea is that if there’s no mention of Christ, then the book may tell a nice story, but it isn’t Christian.

I get it. And a lot of Christian novels that gave this (relatively young) genre its foundation were pretty overt about, well, preaching Jesus through fiction. Hence, I get it even more.

The way we’ve seen things done before frames our thinking about how things should be done. If we’ve seen Christ or Christian lifestyles represented in a certain way in ChristFic, and we approve of what we’ve seen, then we feel assured that that’s the way it “works.” So if we read a piece of fiction and don’t personally see “how it works” as a Christian book, we might feel iffy about it. That’s natural.

Yet, it’s no secret that the biblical book of Esther doesn’t mention God. (Notwithstanding the beautiful book cover here, I’m not referring to novels about Queen Esther but just the biblical book itself.) I’ve never heard a Christian say that Esther shouldn’t be in the Bible, or that the book isn’t reflective of the God Christians worship. Instead, I hear readers make comments to the effect of: “No, Esther doesn’t explicitly mention God, but we see evidence of Him in the book.”

Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere.

Yes, Christ preached sermons and such, but not every message of His came in the same form. Among other things, Christ was a storyteller, sometimes using fictional stories—parables—to convey truth, without explicitly mentioning God in the stories.

And I’ll bet some people felt iffy about His storytelling. “Um…nice little tale You told us, there. But we don’t see how it ‘works.’ ” Nonetheless, I’ve yet to hear a Christian say that Christ’s stories weren’t reflective of Him, that they didn’t represent God, or that His storytelling was to no avail just because not everyone picked up on the underlying points His stories made.

A story may not work for every single person, or it may not work for everyone in the same way, but that doesn’t mean the story doesn’t work.

I think an author’s intended audience matters. But even within that audience, different readers differ, or they may need different things from ChristFic at different times. For instance, I don’t want to feel as if every Christian novel I read is trying to “get me saved.” It might’ve been something I liked seeing in books more, back when I was younger, but that’s not where I am anymore. So ChristFic readers are fortunate that authors can write various kinds of Christian books for different purposes. Not all Christian Fiction may “work” in the same way, and yet it can all still be Christian Fiction.

Besides, no one book has to fulfill all the purposes of ChristFic by itself, if that would even be possible. Books in the genre work together to meet the different needs of readers. It’s like the biblical principle of how one plants, another waters, and God gives the increase. One book may simply plant a seed, another might just add some water, but both books help lead to an increase, if you will.

Now, I’ll admit I don’t always agree with every publisher’s choices about what they label or market as Christian Fiction. Moreover, sometimes retailers make technical mistakes and put certain books into the wrong categories or on the wrong bookshelves.

Still, if an author has deliberately chosen to call their work Christian Fiction, they’ve done so for a reason. If you say the genre is only for stories that quote scriptures or explicitly talk about coming to Jesus, going to church, etc., then you’re also saying there’s no place in the genre for stories like the ones Christ Himself told. Even if an author’s book may not “work” for one reader, it may be working just the way it’s supposed to for other people.

And there very well may be underlying evidence of God in the book for those who are meant to pick up on it.

 

Dear Authors and Readers: It’s Not About “Us” vs. “Them”

Authors and readers. Wielders of the mighty pen, and turners of the wondrous page. We’re all a part of the same book world, here.

Dear Authors. Dear, dear fellow authors:

We all know from Day One that not everybody is going to like our books, that no author can please every reader.

And, sure, the age of the internet and social media has familiarized us with internet trolls. People who post negative comments that nobody needs. Cyber riffraff who seem to have nothing better to do than to say bad stuff about stuff.

Then, up pops a new review for one of our books. Yay! Oh…wait a minute. Not so “yay,” this time. The new review is cutting. The reader did not like the book. The reader does not recommend the book. The reader rated the book with two stars or less. So, because of the undeniably negative, not-so-“yay” effect the reader’s cutting words and low rating have on the author, that reader must be a troll with nothing better to do than to say bad stuff about something the author worked hard on. Right?

Well, not necessarily right. A reader’s cutting review and low star rating do not automatically make that reader a troll.

But what about readers who post totally irrelevant reviews, with complaints about retailer shipping, customer service, or other things that have absolutely nothing to do with the author’s writing? Readers like that are trolls, correct?

Okay. This might be a good time to advise that an author shouldn’t be so quick with the gavel and the “troll” label. Don’t forget what a troll actually is: a person who is intentionally antagonistic online. Someone who makes disruptive attacks on purpose, merely to cause trouble and to get a rise out of folks. Yes, book reviews are a huge, important deal for us authors, and since our books and reviews are constantly on our minds and we know how reviews should be, knowing what or what not to include in a book review may seem like basic, universal knowledge to us.

But, dear authors, most readers aren’t living in our author universe. Or, maybe better said, our author bubble. Most people aren’t thinking about book reviews all the time. They’re not looking for ways to become savvy or expert book critics. They’re just decent, everyday folks, taking a little everyday time to post something online. Not being up on Best Book Reviewing Practices or Customer Review Guidelines does not mean that a person is intentionally antagonistic toward authors.

Likewise, expressing cutting opinions about a book doesn’t make a reader an attacker. Yes, authors, our work is deeply personal to us, so, naturally, it’s hard not to take reviews about our work personally. Still, it’s wise to recognize when a reader is making no personal attack on anyone but is simply saying what they think or how they feel about something they’ve read. Just as we authors are free to write the books we want to write, despite who may not like them, readers are free to choose what they read, free to think or feel the way they do about the books they’ve chosen, despite who may not agree with them.

And, trust me, we would not want to live in a world where only our professed fans would be allowed to buy and read our books, and no one else could have access. A world where people would only be allowed to say when they like something, where all negative opinions would be unwelcomed, censored, or silenced.

Dear Readers. Dear, dear fellow readers:

The age of the internet has made a lot of stuff more accessible to us. It’s even become easier for us to get books right on the spot, without having to wait around or go anywhere, thanks to the invention of ebooks and instant downloads. Yay!

Oh…wait a minute. Not so “yay” all the time. While some of us have totally fallen in love with the convenience and efficiency of digital books, others of us still don’t consider digital books to be real. We can’t really hold ’em in our hands. We can’t smell ’em. We can’t display an ebook on our bookshelf or pass the copy around to as many of our friends as we want.

Since an ebook doesn’t quite seem real to us, we might not be as ready to pay for one as we would a “real” book. Despite the fact that it takes an author just as much time, effort, blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice to write an ebook as it does a print book. Despite the fact that an ebook still needs an editor, a cover designer, someone to format the files, and whatnot. Despite the fact that it takes finance to market and advertise a book, no matter what format the book comes in. Despite the fact that when traditional publishers publish an ebook, they still have to pay everyone on their publishing staff, pay their company bills, pay royalties to the author, and all that. The cost of printing, warehousing, and shipping a print book is only a fraction of what goes into that book’s retail price.

No, ebooks are not cost-free to produce and publish just because they’re not made of paper. Yes, an author still deserves to be paid for the work they’ve put in and for the art–the words–they’re sharing with the world, even if a reader can’t hold those words in their hands.

It’s much like when we pay to go watch a movie or to see a play in a theater. Or when we pay to attend a concert. To browse around a museum. To see a ballet, a tennis match, or a basketball game. We can’t hold a concert, a ballet, or a basketball game in our hands. But we still pay for the experience, for what people in their profession are sharing with us.

Whether a book is published physically or digitally, the author’s words are there. That’s what a book is really about: getting someone’s words out there to other people.

Besides, whether we like it or not, the world we live in is becoming increasingly digital. Book publishing can’t survive if we, dear readers, are willing to download digital books but are unwilling to pay for them. An author or publisher isn’t being mean, greedy, or unreasonable when they charge us to access an author’s words, just like a host of other kinds of artists and professionals charge for their work.

Now, there are plenty of other points I could raise on this author and reader topic, but my main point is this: we shouldn’t make a habit of thinking the folks on the “other side” of a book are out to get us, to cheat us, to make our life as an author or as a reader more difficult. Authors should extend consideration and respect to readers, and readers should extend consideration and respect to authors.

Don’t let it become about “us” vs. “them.” Authors and readers need each other to keep the world of books turning. So, we may as well read and write, buy and sell, give and receive reviews, and enjoy this book world we share with as much grace as possible.