Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Branch Out--Please!--But Don't Uproot Speculative Fiction (Or, My Take, Again, on Christian Spec-Fic)

This is a Banyan tree. It branches out, and drops roots
from those branches. Much the way spec-fic should be. 
I've belabored the idea of this blog post for days and days. It's a topic I feel really strongly about, but don't know how to post about it without, as a friend in whom I confided said, taking someone to task. I will try, very hard, to be as general as possible. There are people out there with real feelings and true kindness to whom my references would seem less than positive.

That said....

I read a lot. Most writers do. Some of us stick more closely to a preferred genre. Others branch out more. I probably spend most of my reading time in my preferred genre, but I do, in fact, branch out quite a bit as well.

I'm a Christian. I don't, however, read standard Christian fiction as a rule. I've tried reading mainstream Christian fiction several times, and with few exceptions I could practically feel the sweat on the preacher's brow and taste the sanitizer used to scrub the manuscript clean. I've also tried reading "popular" (and I use that term loosely) Christian spec-fic, and I find the same preachiness and the same taste in my mouth, albeit flavored with dragon. (There are exceptions--not many, but I name some of them below*.)

So, I read mostly secular fiction, with a few Christian spec-fic books thrown in, and most of those are published by small presses because small presses tend to have looser guidelines when it comes to creativity and content, and actually appreciate subtlety.

This is where things get sticky, but it's the heart of what this blog post is about.

You see, when I or some others I've seen open up discussions about our lack of enthusiasm for the current selection of Christian spec-fic, particularly more "popular" (there's that word again) books/series, we are told that we're not reading enough of it. We're told, "Hey, you want innovative and different, go try (insert author/book/series)."

The problem is that too often those exact books are ones we'd place in the camp with the books we're complaining about--or in some cases are the very books we have already put in that camp. Or, even if it's a decent read, it's one of the first of a genre to be represented among CBA fiction...but that same genre has already come and nearly gone in the secular market. The "originality" the CBA claims to have is just something I haven't been able to see--not after having tasted so much of what's outside that bubble.

Now, let me turn things on their head a bit.

The other side of the coin is that many writers seem to be going for (and agents/editors looking for) new/trendy/different simply for desire to either gain popularity or stand out among the crowd. Mish-mashes of genres can be very fun, especially if they are done well (Bid the Gods Arise by Robert Mullin is one I highly recommend**), but there needs to be roots kept in what makes a genre what it is.

In other words, some of the tropes of fantasy and sci-fi are tropes because they are the things that drag sf/f fans back to the genre again and again.

I can read about a kid discovering magic again and again and never get tired of it. Put a dragon on the cover of a book and I am all over it. Good old-fashioned quests, prophecies and Chosen Ones, telekinesis, alien encounters and evil emperors...Well, you get the picture. The important part is to put an original twist on those tropes. Give us something rooted in the genre, but freshen it up. Sure, we don't want stagnant stories, voices that all sound the same, characters that are rehashes of characters we've already read, but you can still keep a solid core to your work that appeals to the die-hards and branch out a bit at the same time.

Anyway, I hope this post has been read in the spirit in which it was meant. Not a bashing of the CBA, but as an illustration of what I've been saying for a long time: The CBA is what it is, and works quite well for that, but it is a bubble. It has limits and spec-fic, at this time, it outside those limits for the most part.

But I promised to offer some suggestions...

*A few large press Christian spec-fic books that have actually impressed me:

Tyger Tyger, In the Forests of the Night, When the Stars Throw Down Their Spears by Kersten Hamilton - in that order as it is a series. YA fantasy with goblins and Irish folklore!

Dragonkeepers Chronicles by Donita K. Paul- fantasy, allegory, and full of traditional fantasy tropes including dragons and wizards

The Gates of Heaven Series by CS Lakin - fantasy, fairytale - a "series" only in that the stories all take place in the same story world, but you can read them in any order. (My personal favorite is The Map Across Time.)

The Telling by Mike Duran - Supernatural suspense. Very dark. His other stuff is very good, too, but this is the best of them, imho.

Demon: A Memoir by Tosca Lee - she's brilliant.

**Some other self-pub and indie books I'd recommend:

Anna and the Dragon by Jill Domschot - literary fantasy and beautifully written.

Seabird by Sherry Thompson - traditional fantasy, YA, with a rich, unique story world.

The Duke's Handmaid by Caprice Hokstad - a truly unique fantasy world with some rather deep and hard-to-grapple-with themes.

Alpha Redemption by PA Baines - sci-fi with a unique voice and an unconventional story telling technique.

The Windrider Saga by Rebecca P. Minor- dragons and knights and elves and a great voice.

Winter (and Prophetess) by Keven Newsome - YA/NA with a Goth main character and lots of dark supernatural elements.

I Am Ocilla by Diane Graham - uses every fantasy trope out there and combines them into a totally unique story.

Mareritt by Krisi Keley - a private investigator helping some college girls dealing with demonic dreams. A unique voice and compelling characters.

I know I'm missing some, but that's a start! At least you can see what I mean about finding more interesting stories among indies in the Christian market.

(Disclaimer--four of the indie books I recommend here are published by Splashdown Books, who published my novels. However, I had no part of the production of Alpha Redemption. I edited Winter and I Am Ocilla. I did artwork for The Duke's Handmaid, but was not involved with it otherwise.)


Kessie said...

Oo, I hadn't heard of some of these. Checking them out!

Kat Heckenbach said...

Cool, Kessie!

Gail R. Delaney said...

You should try the Future Savior series by Jennifer Hartz. Christian Spec Fic.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Thanks for the suggestion, Gail.

Caprice Hokstad said...

Thanks for the shout-out, Kat! That's a diverse and well-rounded list of suggestions.

Kat Heckenbach said...

You're welcome, Caprice! And thanks :).

Kat Heckenbach said...

You're welcome, Caprice! And thanks :).

RebeccaPMinor said...

I'm flattered to be in excellent company on this list, Kat. Thank you!

And excellent thoughts on the bubble. It has its place and purpose, but I think those who are looking to shape the genre do a good thing to be looking at the larger book market. There is good speculative fiction published by secular publishing houses--it's not all rife with gratuitous sex and gore! :)

Kat Heckenbach said...

Becky, you definitely deserve a place on the list!

And yes, there is tons of secular fiction that is plenty clean. Good writing and good story-telling doesn't have to include sex and gore.

Jill said...

Good choices on your book selection! Aside from mine, of course, I love most of them (haven't read the others, but might love them if I read them).

My brain and fingers are itching to write a sci-fi. It is my destiny! I don't know why, but I feel like telling the world that. :)

Kat Heckenbach said...

I wouldn't have pegged you as a sci-fi writer, Jill. That's cool, though!

Krisi Keley said...

Thank you so much, Kat! I'm honored to be included with these authors. I thought Alpha Redemption and Demon: A Memoir were unique and excellent too, and I look forward to checking out all your other suggestions.

Kat Heckenbach said...

You're welcome, Krisi!

Dragonlots said...

There are quite a number of us writing Christian Speculative. Even my own book 'Winter Awakening' falls into that genre despite my publisher calling it Fantasy.

WolfSinger will be publishing 'God's Gift' this year. A book I'm both excited and a bit nervous about coming out. My main characters are all Christians and it's a life style for them...not a religion.

Dana Bell

Janet Ramsdell Rockey said...

Love the analogy of the Banyan Tree. So true!

Tosca said...

Thank you, Kat. :)

Kat Heckenbach said...

Thanks, Janet :).

And you're welcome, Tosca!

Something About the Joy said...

At least two of these titles bring back memories of the MLP contest a few years ago. Glad they've made it into print. My entry, Zinovy's Journey, is also (indie)published, as of 2011. I know what you mean about the CBA, Kat. I tried there, but never got past the elevator pitch with any of the editors. ZJ does not fit into the narrow niches they seem to like. I'm not sure it fits in any niche.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Yep, those pitches. My little time at a Christian writers conference--and the looks I got just at the *mention* of YA fantasy...