Sneak peek at Malicious

Ah, the Puzzle Box trilogy. It was supposed to be published, all three books, in one year. And then I got pregnant. Here we are, two years later, with the final book almost ready to launch. I’m aiming for November, since I’m still deep in revisions before I hand it off to my poor editor.

It’s a YA paranormal romance trilogy that I wrote after reading way too many paranormal romances. I was tired of the girl never having any inkling that vampires or werewolves existed until her new, alluring boyfriend flashed a fang. I mean, really? How can a girl exist in this world without ever having seen a vampire on TV?

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So Libby, my heroine, is what they call genre-savvy. She plays videogames and reads fantasy books. She pegs Mal as a vampire straight off, even though he’s a different kind of monster. (White skin – check. Super speed – check. Unusual strength – check. Never seems to eat food – check.) Later on, when she finds out that he’s a lich, she knows what that is because of videogame knowledge. Same for other monsters like revenants, ghouls, zombies, and so on. Mal is always astonished at her knowledge. And all she does is play videogames.

Mal is a lich. That means that he’s only sort of undead. His soul has been removed and stored in a container called a phylactery. He still has his mind and spirit, but the human part, with all positive emotions, are in his soul. Without it, he’s a creature of negative emotions: anger, hate, loathing, all that jazz. It also gives him massive death magic powers. But Mal never wanted to be a lich, and is desperately seeking a way to return his soul. So he keeps specially-bred bees that collect life magic from flowers and store it in their honey. By eating their honey, he can simulate human life, which keeps his death magic in check.

And then there’s the Necromancer, who is intent on turning Mal into a proper evil monster who can follow in his footsteps.

Book 1 is on sale right now at all retailers. If you’ve already read the first two books, here’s a sneak peek at the beginning of book 3, after the devastation that was the ending of book 2.

Continue reading “Sneak peek at Malicious”

Shouting into the void

Controversial topic ahead. About religion. You have been warned.

Okay, so, I’ve been reading some fantasy from Christian authors. I used to read Christian fantasy all the time as a teen, simply because that’s all I knew how to find. Our library didn’t have a lot in the way of juvenile science fiction and fantasy in the early 90s. (Boy, it sure does now!)

Anyway, once I started reading adult fantasy/sci-fi, I stopped reading the Christian stuff. I especially got into urban fantasy, where gods and monsters ride motorcycles and eat greasy Chinese food on the weekends. In this brand of fantasy, if you need to interact with God, you do it very respectfully, usually through an angel. All the other gods and monsters dislike messing with Heaven, because God is the Big Boss.

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The angel, by The Rafa

So I’ve been reading some Christian fantasy, and I’ve run into something that bothers me. These characters pray all the time, and I do mean all the time. They attribute everything that happens to God’s will. When bad things happen, they spout platitudes about God’s mysterious ways.

But they’re shouting into a void. God never answers. There might be a coincidence now and then that is attributed to God, but God himself is absent.

After spending so much time in other branches of fantasy, where the gods not only intervene in daily affairs, they all bow to the high God, who also intervenes on behalf of his worshipers … this leaves me scratching my head. A lot of these books are written by non-Christians, as far as I know. So why are the Christians the ones the most distant from their own God? God talks to people all the time in the Bible. He’s talked to me quite clearly in my own life.

Even Cthulhu will answer if called to long enough and hard enough.

So why is God silent in Christian fantasy?

 

Making art again

So I’ve been trying to make art more often, now that I have a new tablet. The littlest ones are old enough to sit and watch videos while I draw, which means I actually get to focus on my doodles.

I recently discovered the joys of texture brushes. They make painting a lot of little things, like leaves, a lot more pleasant.

Or chains.
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I thought it might be nice to try a matte painting tutorial. The one I found turned out to use a lot of stock photos that you have to buy first, and my attempts to Google comparative images was hit and miss. I gave up, but produced this.

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However, I learned a few things, I tried my hand at speedpainting a mountain scene. It’s more a study in values and atmospheric perspective than anything–both things I need to study up on.

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Here’s the painting I did today, using these cloud brushes for Photoshop. They’re kind of odd and blocky, but they stack well with themselves. It was also fun to paint a dragonish creature there in the foreground. I’m super rusty, though. I need to get back into the swing of art.

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So there you have it. My super-productive week. :-p

Menacing lizards (little dragons?)

Today we were menaced by a collared lizard. It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen.

We had been out for a walk at about 8 AM. In Arizona. When it’s supposed to be (only) 109. (It was 116 yesterday, so I’d say 109 is an improvement.) Anyway, the heat has made the insect population explode. By extension, the lizard population has also exploded. They’re everywhere, lots of different kinds, all looking at you sarcastically as you walk by.

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This lovely guy is a Great Basin Collared Lizard. Look at the condescension in his eye.

Anyway, we were walking along one of the nearby washes, which is full of brush and animal life. A good sized collared lizard ran away from us into the bushes as we walked along. Suddenly its mate popped out onto the sidewalk.

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Not my photo–it’s from WIkimedia Commons

He looked like this one. Only with more red. He flattened himself to make himself look bigger, and extended his throat dewlap thing, which I’d only seen iguanas do when afraid or scared. Then he started doing pushups.

Lizard Pushups

This is a display of aggression. He was warning us to leave his territory, he was top lizard, and we were unwanted predators.

I sat and laughed. I mean, getting menaced by a critter the size of my foot is pretty funny. His resolve faded as we walked closer, and he zipped into the bushes again. Poor lizard, I don’t mean to laugh at you, but you’re just so funny.

Now imagine if he was elephant-sized and doing an aggressive display to lurking humans. That right there is a dragon.

I think it would be fun if somebody wrote a story with an actual reptilian dragon that actually exhibited reptile behavior. Imagine the huge dragon basking on a rock in the early morning, watching his domain and hoping a female shows up. 😀 Who shows up to ruin his day? Some irritating dragonslayer. Cue the aggressive head-bobbing and pushups, man!

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Dragon on the rock by Antimad1

Stories that stand the test of time

In Story Engineering, Mr. Brooks talks about the importance of human psychology. He states that a book that gets psychology right will stand out from the crowd.

I started looking around for examples of this. Being a mom, we read oceans of children’s books. I’ve noticed for a while that my favorite books are really old ones, from the 60s and earlier. With the new angle of human psychology in mind, I started looking at them.

And you know, he’s right.

Look at Little Bear, by Elsa Holmelund Minarik.

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Little Bear asks for more and more clothes to wear outside because he’s cold in the snow. At the end, his mother takes away all his clothes and shows him his fur coat. “And he was not cold. What do you think of that?”

Or how about Three to Get Ready, by Betty Boegehold and Mary Chalmers.

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“George was very sorry. George was very sorry for George. He said, “Gigi’s fish looks better than my fish. Ginger’s fish looks better than my fish. They have a better supper than I have.” So George bit Gigi. He scratched Ginger.”

Each little story in Three to Get Ready is a different exploration of a vice–bad temper, greed, or disobedience. Each vice comes with interesting consequences as some adventure befalls each kitten.

The same with Arnold Lobel’s little books, his most famous being Frog and Toad.

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In one book, for example, Toad has a dream that he’s on stage, being famous. Meanwhile his friend, Frog, is in the crowd. Every time Toad does something amazing, Frog shrinks a little more. After a while, Frog is too small to be seen or heard. Toad wakes up in a panic. I’ve posted before about the wonderful story about when Frog and Toad fly a kite.

But there are plenty of others. For instance, Mike Mulligan’s Steam Shovel, a heartwarming tale about earth works. Or the same author’s book The Little House, (one of my favorites as a kid), a heartwarming story about urban development. The early Berenstein Bears (The Bike Lesson, the Honey Hunt, the Bear’s Picnic) inadvertently says more about marriage than it does about the story. (Seriously. Watch Mama Bear’s face.)

So, I think Larry Brooks is right. We love seeing the outcome of human psychology. It makes for the best stories.

Can Story Engineering save your book?

I’m emerging from building a new book like a groundhog from his hole. Blinking. Jumping at shadows. “Wait, you still want regular meals?”

It hasn’t been that bad, ha ha. After I officially retired the Spacetime books, I knew I would need serious help to turn them into marketable urban fantasy. Lo and behold, who should pop into my blog feed but Larry Brooks, talking about concept, premise, and his book Story Engineering.

I needed pretty much all of the above, so I checked out the book at the library.

After four chapters, I realized that I would need to buy this book. It is destined to be filled with underlines and sticky notes. I read a few chapters, furiously write things down, then read some more.

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One of my ideas involves a panther, because they’re so pretty. And deadly.

Story Engineering takes screenplay writing and applies it to novel writing. To become a successful author, you have to master the six core competencies:

One: Concept
Two: Character
Three: Theme
Four: Structure
Five: Scene execution
Six: Writing voice

Each item has five or ten chapters devoted to it, along with helpful worksheets to get the juices flowing. For example, at the end of this post is the list of questions for building a character, their backstory, salient characteristics, and arc.

Following his guidelines, I’ve got a rough outline of a tight plot that pleases me very much. The nice thing is, I already knew most of this. It’s an in-depth version of Libbie Hawker’s Take Off Your Pants. But this book takes it to an extremely detailed depth.

So if you’re like me with a few books under your belt and you’re looking to up your game, check out Story Engineering. Any tool that lets me write fewer drafts is great, in my opinion!

And now, that character sheet:


What is his backstory, the experiences that programmed how he thinks and feels and acts?

What is his inner demon, and how does it influence decisions and actions in the face of the outer demon?

What does he resent?

What is his drive to get revenge?

How does he feel about himself, and what is the gap between that assessment and how others feel about him?

What is his worldview?

What is your character’s moral compass?

Is he a giver or a taker in life?

To what extent does he adhere to gender roles and stereotypes?

What lessons has he not yet learned in life?

What lessons has he experienced but rejected or failed to learn?

Who are his friends? Are they like for like, or above/below him in intelligence?

What is his social I/Q? Awkward? Eager? Easy? Life of the party? Wallflower? Faking?

Introvert or extrovert? How does this manifest?

What is his secret yearning?

What childhood dream never came true, and why?

What is his religion?

What’s the worst thing he’s ever done?

Does he have secrets or a secret life?

What do his friends/family/employer not know about him?

When, how, why does he hold back/procrastinate?

What has held him back in life?

Who would come to his funeral–or not?

What is the most unlikely or contradictory part about him?

What are his first dimension quirks, habits, and choices?

Why are they in evidence, what are they saying or covering for?

What is the backstory that leads to these choices?

What are the psychological scars that affect his life, and how does this link to backstory?

How strong is he under pressure?

What is his arc over the course of the story? How does he change and grow?

How does he apply that learning toward becoming the catalytic force that drives the denouement of the story?

Rebooting Spacetime

It was time. Time to write the final Spacetime book. I grimly faced the computer screen, forcing myself to read the first book in the series. I had to reread the whole series in order to write that final book, and I couldn’t put it off any longer.

Except I did. I read Facebook. I watched videos. I chatted to friends. Everything except read the book.

Finally I confronted myself. I usually love to read my own work. Why was this so hard? What was wrong with me?

As I began to answer those questions, I realized what I needed to do.

Spacetime was my “learning to write” books. I experimented. I tried things. I practiced editing. And the books are terrible. Downright awful. I could detail all the ways that they suck, but I’ll spare you.

The point is, I unpublished the whole series this week. As of next month they will be unavailable online any more. It’s been a regular ice pick through the heart.

I still like the characters, though. I feel like I didn’t do them or their world justice. (I even had a review that mourned that the ideas were good, but the execution was lacking.) I’ve been dying to reboot their world as a tightly-written urban fantasy joyride. So I talked it over with my husband, and he agreed.

Spacetime is going away. It’ll be reborn as a trilogy that will be so good, I’ll actually want to read it. Right now the world building is consuming my consciousness. We’re revamping the magic system, combining and rethinking characters, and basically doing all the things I couldn’t do before. Lesson learned: don’t write fantasy books when pregnant/nursing. My brain cells just don’t operate at full capacity.

The five books will be condensed into a trilogy. Here is the rough summary of the new first book:

If you can’t kill them, catch them.

When a wild kelpie rampages through downtown Phoenix, James “Carda” Chase captures it using forbidden space magic. Hired as part of a secret coalition of mages defending Earth, Carda must figure out who is breaking the World Wards and letting monsters through before the wards fall and magic creatures overrun a world unprepared for them.

Yeah, there’s a tiny influence from Monster Hunter International in there.

There was so many ideas in the original Spacetime drafts that got cut, like angeli ascendants, and geomancers, and various other worlds and characters that never saw the spotlight. The original series was closer to superhero fiction than real urban fantasy. Casting it as actual fantasy means fantasy creatures running around our modern world. I get to play with modern applications for magic (like, for instance, powering a car’s engine purely by fire magic). I get to write a character in a codependent relationship with an elemental. My werewolf doesn’t have to be so sciencey anymore–he can just be a dang werewolf.

I’m so excited to write a proper couple of books in this genre. Everything about urban fantasy excites me. Imagine if Harry Potter grew up and roamed Muggle London, beating down magical creatures that threatened to expose the wizarding world to Muggles. That’s urban fantasy. And it’s awesome.

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Top Five Fandoms I’m No Longer In

I borrowed this topic from Thrice Read, who did it as part of their Top Five Wednesday theme. I loved the idea of talking about fandoms we’ve loved and abandoned, so here we go:

5. Harry Potter

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I started reading Harry Potter when book 4 came out. The controversy over them was raging, and I’d heard both sides of the argument pretty thoroughly. So I picked up the first Harry Potter and the first Redwall (both of which were very popular at the time). Harry was so much more fun than Redwall. My whole family really got into the Harry books, trying to guess what might happen next, trying to guess who the Half-Blood Prince might be, and so on. But after book 7 … I don’t know. I’m done. I still admire the books for being a great story, but that ship has sailed.

4. World of Warcraft

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I played WoW with my siblings from the first version onward through the first two expansions. I had a top-level character with epic gear, did Heroic Dungeons and raids … and then I burned out. I had babies and less and less free time. Then the fourth expansion came out, which changed the original game … and I don’t know. I never got into it after that. I still buy a month now and then, but it’s such a time sink, I just can’t get back into it.

3. Doctor Who

DOCTOR WHO *embargoed 19th March*

I watched a smattering of Doctors 9 and 10, but I started really watching it with 11. And, let’s face it, the story arc for 11 had some real high points. Trying to guess what River Song would do next, and if she would really kill the Doctor? And the whole arc with the Doctor trying to escape his own death at the hands of the Impossible Astronaut? Silence will fall? The crack in the wall? The Weeping Angels? Oh man, it was amazing.

Then the head writer started writing Sherlock instead, and the brilliance faded. The Eleventh Doctor kind of fell by the wayside, his series ending with a whimper. Then the Twelfth Doctor started up, and instead of the dignity I felt the Doctor should have, he was overly silly. I fell off the Doctor Who wagon and never got back on.

2. His Dark Materials

The-Golden-Compass

A friend gave me the first book when it was still called Northern Lights (it was changed to the Golden Compass later, which annoyed me, because the alethiometer wasn’t a compass). That first book was AWESOME. Then the second book came out, and it was … well, still good, but where was this all going? Then the third book came out. My friend and I read it … and we never spoke of it again. You don’t split up the main characters and take away their powers at the end, man. Growing up isn’t as horrible as all that. But this book makes adulthood into this horrible, horrible thing. Not to mention all the other … uh … issues this author seemed to have. We’ll leave it at that. Talk about disappointing.

Number 1: The Raven Boys.
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I picked up the first book when it came out because I had liked Shiver so much and I wanted to read more of the author’s work. Raven Boys took me on a wild romp with preppy school boys, psychics, a treasure hunt, leylines, ghosts, and all kinds of fantastic magical realism stuff that flirted with real magic. The second book, Dream Thieves, was even better. Then the author started talking on Twitter about the directions she was taking the characters … directions I honestly didn’t think worked for the characters … and then book 4 came out .. and all I had to do was read the reviews. Very disappointed reviews. The big reveal was a bust. The big reversal was flubbed. It was like getting to the ending of LOST and going, “What, did the author run out of ideas or something?”

So there’s my top five no-longer-fandoms. How about you? Do you have any fandoms that you jumped into and then left later on?

Writing is hard (or why my brain is fried)

I’ve been working hard on the third Malevolent book, Malicious. I’ve almost finished this revision cycle, and the book is awesome. But man, it didn’t start out that way.

I wrote Malcontent and Malicious when I was pregnant with our youngest. She’s seventeen months old now, and I’m just now finishing revisions on Malicious.

Malcontent was easy to write. I knew the conflicts and the villain. But I didn’t know what the heck I was doing with Malicious. The villain changed, the conflict changed, my hero and heroine’s relationship changed. The first draft was me flailing around going, “What am I even writing?”

When I got to the end, the lights came on. I spent the whole book brainstorming my villain. Only when they defeated him did it finally click. Then I had to go back and rewrite swaths of the book to make the villain fit my new understanding. (And a book came out last year that did almost my exact same ending twist. :facepalm:)

So, after pass after pass after pass, the book is finally approaching readability. I’m confident that my editor won’t curl up in the fetal position now.

It’s so weird to finally be finished with this trilogy. I didn’t realize what a huge project it would be when I started out. “Hey, it’s only three books. No problem!”

News flash: writing books is hard. Especially if you want other human beings to read them.

So now I’m in that downtime between projects, unsure what to do with myself. This is compounded by summer vacation setting in. The kids don’t know what to do with themselves. I’m thinking we should sign up for the library’s summer reading program this year. Last year, when it started, the kids book section was empty. I couldn’t figure out why all the books were gone. Surprise! The summer reading program had kicked off. The books were all back a few weeks later.

I’m working through my own TBR pile. Amazing how stuff just accumulates in your Kindle–out of sight, out of mind. Right now I’m reading a shlocky, clunky space opera–but hey, it’s light. I’m also playing some Minecraft mod packs. Amazing how many story ideas you can get from those. Right now I’m learning Thaumcraft, a kind of crazy alchemy pack.

I’m going to read through my Spacetime series, correct the commas and make the dialogue funnier. Then I’ve got to write that fifth book, which is an epic boss fight that wrecks the worlds. I think I need to binge on superhero movies for this one.

Figuring out that Spacetime has more in common with superheroes than with real urban fantasy has been such a relief. Urban fantasy usually features a tough protagonist in an urban setting tracking down fairy tale monsters.

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Harry Dresden by theglyph

Superhero fantasy involves people with super powers fighting each other. While there can be monsters, they’re more the “victims of science” kinds of monsters. Genetically-engineered mutants, robots, that kind of thing. Superheroes also get away with having aliens. Urban fantasy? Not so much, unless it’s a Men in Black kind of thing.

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From Final Fantasy XV, which kind of blends superhero and UF, depending which game you’re playing

I also want to write more cozy dragon mysteries. They’re like curling up with a blanket and a mug of hot cocoa. I’ve got a second one nearly finished. I want to write a third one where my little dragon sleuth is hired by a cat, who thinks her mistress has been murdered but can’t prove it. Because this whole series is one long wishful thinking about talking to animals.

So that’s my long ramble about the various projects I’m working on. How about you? Got any projects simmering away?

Can Christian writers get traditionally published?

Recently a lot of writers in my circles have been evaluating their success (or lack thereof) with publishing. Becky Minor, of the Realm Makers Conference, articulated the question this way:


Many of us have the goal of writing stories with Godly underpinnings, even if the Christian values or themes are not overt. We’d love for our stories to reach beyond “preaching to the choir,” so to speak.

What I wonder is this: do such stories actually have a chance of being traditionally published? Or are they more likely to collect rejections for “lacking freshness” (because the story contains moral absolutes), committing cultural appropriation/exploitation (because an author opted to write outside of the typical American churchgoing experience), being misogynistic (a hierarchy of authority might be headed by male members of a society) , or land on the wrong side of any of a number of hot button thou-shalt-nots?

As you ruminate on the strictures of the both the CBA and the ABA worlds, what is really true about the publishing prospects of Judeo-Christian-leaning speculative fiction?


This launched a discussion with all kinds of opinions. One science fiction writer talked about being told that Anne McCaffery is no longer relevant to the genre:


I think they’re likely to collect rejections, and unfortunately it’s not a failing of quality stories or even a measure of what people will buy or read, but a failing of traditional publishing. They’re so committed to secular humanism and the politics that follow with it that there’s no room for heroes anymore. Their sensitivity readers will wash it all out.

The good news is they keep pushing the boundaries of what’s acceptable and tolerable to them into a smaller and smaller box. Just last night I had the trad pub crowd on a fake news site railing on me while I was defending Anne McCaffrey, as they called her a “problematic writer”. No joke. There may not be a traditional publishing in 10 years time if they tell most of the reading population that they’re not wanted.

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Dragonriders of Pern, while it does have dragons, is actually science fiction

Another person remarked,


The general market is very open to all of the above as long as the story isn’t clearly “message driven” or “preachy”. It’s all about a good story. I just look at all the great LDS authors like Brandon Sanderson who have theology and/or moral underpinnings in their works. Readers in the general market love it. The authors don’t preach, but their worldview is infused in their stories.

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Cover art for The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

And then comes the mic drop.



I think too often these musings are just another layer of excuse. I’m certainly not saying that was Becky’s intent here, but it’s something I do see a lot, particularly in culturally/politically like-minded groups. “This story probably won’t sell because the market blah blah blah it’s out of my hands.” And note that the “other side” is wringing their hands over the identical issue. “I can’t sell my story about my black lesbian abortion doctor because it’s too marginal/controversial.” They have the same experiences of rejection which seem to support that view. Neither end of the bell curve can see the other, only the bump in the middle which appears to be the opposite end. We all think we’re being shut out, when in fact there’s an enormous bump in the middle.

But really, it’s very much in your hands. No, you don’t get to make the final buying decision, that’s all on the editor 🙂 but you are 100% responsible for the submission package you send. And most of the time, that’s about your story, not about you.

And in my observation, it’s not as limiting as described above. The limitations are OURS. If a writer can’t write the difference between a male authority character and misogyny, that’s the problem, rather than a cultural conspiracy. Likewise while there are a few cultural appropriation landmines to avoid, the majority of the market is pretty fair and accessible (I’m super-white, and my last traditional short story did not have a single white character and was set in a country I’ve never visited).

I think much of the time, this is the same emotional response I see in myself to the CBA. It’s not what I know and am comfortable with, so I think it’s constrictive, I find it unwelcoming, and I might call it names. 😉 If we look around this group and are very honest with ourselves, we’ll see we are predominantly white, predominantly Republican, predominantly homeschool, etc. But those tribes have NOTHING to do with Christianity, if we really think about it. To say “I can’t sell because I’m a Christian” is a false oversimplification at very best, while to say “I can’t sell my climate-change-is-a-global-conspiracy story to a hard science mag” may be a more accurate assessment.

We don’t have to “sneak” our worldview in. If it’s really our worldview, it’s already in, wholly permeating our story. But we have to keep in mind what our ultimate message is, too. Is our ultimate theme to convert people to a political view or a change in habits? (Hey, that’s a longstanding literary thing, go right ahead, just don’t pretend it’s your *faith* which is holding you back from publishing success.) Or is our ultimate theme a message of love and hope and spiritual redemption? Because that should carry through regardless of male or female characters, cultural setting, politics, etc.

TL;DR: Don’t confuse politics and faith, don’t assume a lack of sales is relevant to faith, consider Occam’s Razor when guessing at cause of rejection (if 95% of secular stories are rejected, yours might be just rejected too rather than the rejection being a specific anti-Christian response).

(Note: somebody is probably going to read this and interpret that I’m recommending a personal sellout to get sales. That’s absolutely not my point at all. That is in fact the opposite of my point.)


After that, the discussion was pretty much over. I thought it was fascinating–the idea that maybe the problem isn’t publishing. Maybe the problem is us.

It made me really evaluate my own writing. I have a faith-based element in the Malevolent books, and their sales are mediocre. It could also be that the YA paranormal romance genre is a hard sell right now. My cozy dragon mystery, which has no religion at all, but lots of nice people being nice to each other, is selling really well. That “permeating worldview” seems to speak more powerfully than writing a sermon.

(All quotes have had the names removed to protect identities. If you would like your message here removed, drop me a line.)