Christian Fiction: A Changing Genre

Janette Oke’s first, trailblazing ChristFic novel, which has gone through revisions and cover art makeovers since its first publication in 1979.

I’ve heard my share of praise and criticism about the Christian Fiction genre since I started reading ChristFic novels over twenty years ago. Sometimes I disagree with what I hear, and other times I agree.

When it comes to the criticism especially, I bear a certain point in mind. While authors have been writing Christian literature for centuries, the modern genre that we now call Christian Fiction (a marketing label) is still relatively young. It only started becoming a “thing” around the late 1970s, early ’80s. Anything young takes a while to mature, to get better with time, and as a bonus, it’s not unheard of for authors and publishers to go back and revise, reedit, and repackage—coming out with new and improved editions of previously published works.

Now, ChristFic isn’t the only genre I read, and I’ve spent years delving into classic works and other books that give me strong examples of command of language and storytelling mastery. It’s been my goal to take what I learn as a reader and to apply it to ChristFic as a writer.

The storytelling in some ChristFic novels has amazed me over the years.

No, I’m not claiming that I’ve become a literary master. Writers grow (or at least they should grow) and improve over time. Even now, I’m not the same writer, or the same person, I was back when I wrote my first novel, Yella’s Prayers, and my first historical fantasy book, The Movement of Crowns. (Oh, I still think the books were good back then, and more recent revisions have improved them.)

More ChristFic books that have been made-over since their first publications.

But I’m glad I’m here at this time in Christian Fiction, both as a reader and a writer. I do think that during earlier years in this young genre’s history, lots of Christian readers were simply happy to find wholesome novels with Christian content, with more choices available than, say, Grace Livingston Hill romances from the 1940s and earlier. That’s not at all a knock against GLH though, as I love old-fashioned books, I’ve enjoyed a number of GLH’s, and I respect her as the key pioneer of Christian romance novels.

The vintage cover art of a few of the Grace Livingston Hill classics I’ve read gives me a certain kind of nostalgia.

Even so, it seems to me that in a general sense, during the modern ChristFic genre’s earlier stages of becoming a whole distinct market, excellence and virtuosity in the style and fine art of fiction writing itself wasn’t the goal so much as having stories that conveyed Christian (and oftentimes evangelistic/salvational) messages.

But now that the genre has been around a little longer, ChristFic authors and publishers are raising the bar, and ChristFic readers’ standards and preferences are shifting and expanding. Along with themes reflective of faith, ChristFic readers want more skillful and insightful storytelling. More subgenres to choose from. More varieties and levels of content. More diversity.

ChristFic has come a ways in diversity, and we have quite a ways to go!

Moreover, while there’s a place for different levels of spiritual content in Christian Fiction, many ChristFic readers don’t necessarily want or need on-the-nose or “in your face” Gospel preaching or teaching while they’re reading novels. Everybody has their own preferences, and Christian Fiction has been shifting from meaning only “fiction that is conspicuously Christian” to meaning “fiction that is suitable for Christians,” whatever the level of spiritual content may be, and also “fiction from a Christian worldview, suitable for broader audiences.”

(And yes, readers have different opinions about what should qualify a book to be Christian Fiction. But before you say, “If it doesn’t have explicitly Christian content, it can’t be Christian Fiction!”—remember that Christ Himself told fictional stories, and His stories didn’t have what we would call explicitly Christian content in them.)

As for me, I started writing and publishing ChristFic because I couldn’t find all the kinds of stories I wanted to read in the genre. I saw that Christian Fiction had room for growth, change, and diversity, and I wanted to help bring that to other ChristFic readers. (I also write for readers who don’t normally read ChristFic, as I think telling a good story can and should often transcend genre/market labels and other boxes. You know?)

I’m not at all the only author who writes books because I want to read them.

The Christian Fiction genre is indeed changing. Sometimes change is hard and unsettling. It involves trial and error and learning, taking risks and seizing the day, and many times, change is necessary, healthy, and enriching. Back when I first curled up with novels like Oke’s Love Comes Softly and GLH’s Happiness Hill, I didn’t know I’d one day be reading ChristFic military and legal and political and techno thrillers, and ChristFic historical mysteries, and ChristFic psychological suspense, and ChristFic written by authors of color featuring main characters of color, and on it goes.

This relatively young genre isn’t what it was forty years ago, and I’m looking forward to seeing it continue to mature, expand, and improve with time.

Decades ago, I didn’t imagine some of the different kinds of ChristFic I’d find to read years later.

2019’s Top Ten Posts

Prismatic Prospects just had its busiest year so far! Check out 2019’s Top Ten Posts.

When Calls the Heart (Television Show)

The Canadian West Series by Janette Oke

Christmas Book Picks 2019

Favorite Covers 2019

Romance in Christian Fiction: How Much Heat is Too Much?

Who Brings Forth the Wind by Lori Wick

Diversity in Christian Fiction: How Can Readers Help?

As Time Goes By by Lori Wick

The Kindness of Critical Book Reviews

Favorite Reads 2019

 

Life After an Author’s Mistakes

I recently took a survey that asked me, “What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made as an author?”

Oh. Ouch. All the ouch.

There’s a lot of research, trial and error, learning, and growth that comes along with this authoring and publishing gig, especially for those of us who are in it for the long term. It’s a journey that requires creativity, business know-how, and oftentimes a combination of both.

Yet, my biggest mistake as an author wasn’t exactly a creative one or even all that business-related. It was part of the result of being grievously maltreated for ten years.

I’ll not go into all of those details in this post. But suffice it to say that I published some books in reaction to the constant demands for marketplace productivity from a twisted, abusive manipulator who feigned to care about my success and wellbeing—because my productivity would help the manipulator look good. There’s much more to it, but I’ll leave it at that.

No, those books I published in vain attempts to stave off further abuse weren’t bad books. I’m a good writer, and I didn’t just pick up a pen yesterday. Even so, I often say that writers should know the specific reasons why they, as individuals, write. Further, authors who publish should know the specific reasons why they publish their work. (That is, just because you love to write doesn’t mean you have to seek or desire to get into the business of publishing. Not all writers do, and it’s okay.)

But some time after I got out of that abusive situation and took stock of my work, I found that some of my books didn’t line up with my personal reasons for writing and publishing. They weren’t a reflection of my real passion. They weren’t the kind of books I hoped to be known for, nor were they books I would search for or purchase as a reader.

Why would I want to sell stuff to other people that I wouldn’t even buy myself? Publishing some of those books was a mistake.

Granted, I gained valuable information, skills, and experience in the midst of my mistake-making. Publishing those books taught me how to publish. Still, once I realized that those books (while good for what they were) weren’t produced in the spirit I want for my life and career, and they weren’t what I wanted to provide for readers, I had to stop and change my direction.

That meant doing some revising and reediting, and for one book, doing a thorough rewrite for a new edition. For other books of mine, it meant going through and unpublishing them, taking them off the market altogether. No reworking or rewriting—just removing them and putting a close to that unfortunate chapter of my journey.

Would I be further along than I am now as an author if I hadn’t had that weight on my back for a decade? In some ways, it’s quite likely. Even knowing what I learned at the time, I can see how that weight held me back, to put it mildly.

The important thing, though, is that after making my biggest mistake(s) as an author, I didn’t hang a “Forget It” sign on my door and close up shop. I kept going. I’m still going. And as long as I’ve got more stories to write and to share with the world, I’m going to keep at my life’s work, because no one can do my life’s work but me.

This absolutely doesn’t only apply to authors, but whoever you are, if you’re reading this: there’s life after your mistakes. Find a way to make things right, even if it means changing your direction or taking a totally different path, or going back and making corrections, or “unpublishing” some chapters you’ve written, taking them “off the market,” and letting them go.

Dust yourself off, inhale some fresh air, and keep going. No one can do your life’s work but you.

 

Publishing Books As a Series: Just a Sales Gimmick?

First, the short answer to this blog post’s title: NO.

And now for an answer with a little more detail.

Sure, some authors and publishers might use cliffhangers or incomplete story arcs to essentially trick or “force” readers into buying an additional book. But a whole lot of book series aren’t about tricks. Not everything that happens in certain characters’ lives, or in certain worlds authors create, can be contained in a single book.

Of course, some book series are linked by a common theme while the books stand completely alone, sharing no characters. The Women of the West series by Janette Oke is a good example. Historical fiction about—you guessed it!—women in the west, and that overall theme is the only link the individual books share.

Then there are series that have some characters in common, but each book is a separate story featuring different main characters taking the lead. The Atlanta Justice series, legal suspense by Rachel Dylan, is the first such series that popped into my head.

Nevertheless, even when a series features the same lead characters in each book, or the different books take on different phases of an overall story arc, it doesn’t mean the series is a trick or a sales gimmick.

Especially for particular genres, rather blatant cliffhanger endings are major suspense builders that, believe it or not, some audiences actually enjoy. They love the thrill of seeing a hero or heroine jump out of an airplane thousands of feet up in the sky, the book skidding to a stop while the character is still in midair, and the audience holds their breath in anticipation of the next book.

Hey. It’s not my favorite thing as a reader, personally. But I can’t knock other readers for thinking it’s fun. It’s like the season finales of a lot of TV shows, when fans wait for the new season to find out what happens next.

A novel based on Dr. Quinn–coming up soon on my TBR list!

I mean, one of my favorite TV cliffhangers ever had a literal cliff, back in the ’90s on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. When Sully and that crooked army Sergeant What’s-His-Name got into hand-to-hand combat and tumbled off that cliff to free fall into a canyon, Dr. Quinn arrived later only to find that Sully had disappeared, and Dr. Quinn, with a mix of fear and uncanny conviction, whispered, “He’s alive. I know he’s alive.” [End of Season Five.] I’ve never enjoyed hanging off a cliff more!

But, *ahem,* back to the present.

There are other book series with returning characters that don’t have cliffhanger endings at all. Each book is a complete story with a natural conclusion, and then the characters come back in a new book with another complete story about new events or another phase in the characters’ lives.

It’s kind of like how we live in real life. Everything doesn’t happen all at once, but we live in different years and seasons. If our lives were novels, too much would happen to many of us to fit in just one book. Life takes time. We’d need additional books to show how our additional seasons unfold.

One series that immediately comes to mind for me is the Seasons of the Heart series, more historical fiction by Janette Oke. The series follows an orphaned boy, Joshua, from childhood to young adulthood to manhood, and each book is a complete story in itself.

I’ve not yet read all the books in a newer, sci-fi series by Steve Rzasa, featuring Captain Vincent Chen. Yes, there are some overarching themes that aren’t tied up in a neat and tidy, “Happily Ever After and That’s All Folks!” bow at the end of each book. Yet, the two books I’ve read so far each contain a complete story, intriguing me to read more about Vincent, even without him dangling off galactic cliffs at the end of the books.

And then, sometimes a series continues simply because an author finds out new stuff about previous characters. Take two of the series I’ve written so far, the Movement of Crowns and When It’s Time. Neither series was a series at first. The Movement of Crowns was one book, Love Unfeigned was one book, and that was that. Done!

Or so I thought.

Months (in one case, years) later, new stuff involving the characters came to my attention. So, I wrote more books.

  

The two series I’m writing now, the Crowns Legacy and Eubeltic Realm series, have returning characters, too. But it’s not a gimmick to “make” people buy more books. I love the characters, I keep writing as I learn more of what happens to them, and each individual book is a complete story with a natural conclusion.

No tricks. Not a marketing ploy. Just a continuation of characters’ lives, their seasons, and more about the world they live in, revealed in more than one book.

Similar to how my life would be if someone were to write about it.

No, I can’t speak for authors or publishers who may really be trying to bamboozle or essentially force readers into something by publishing books as a series. But don’t let that fool you into thinking that’s what all book series are about. The honest, creative, and useful purposes for series in literature are much bigger than any author’s or publisher’s supposed gimmicks.