2014 Summer Writing Challenge Finalists

Blog | | Monday, July 28, 2014
Choose from the finalists and vote in the poll at the end of this post for one entry you think is best. The one receiving the most votes will be the winner, and the author will receive a $25 e-gift card from either Amazon or B&N.

2014 Summer Writing ChallengeHere are your 2014 Summer Writing Challenge Finalists. As you’ll see, there are four, instead of the anticipated three, because we had a tie.

In this round you’ll choose from these entries and vote in the poll at the end of this post for one entry you think is best.

The entry receiving the most votes will be the winner, and the author will receive a $25 e-gift card from either Amazon or B&N. (In case of a tie, we’ll have a run-off vote).

Voting will last until midnight (Pacific time), Sunday, August 3.

And now the finalist entries (presented in the order in which they were submitted):

From Hannah

The way Tag judged his circumstances, he could die if he stayed or die if he left. There was always death wherever he turned. Why not, for a change, choose life? Not for him. There’d never been life for him. For them.

Terrified screams forced him back into reality. He glanced down at the child staring at him, brown eyes as soft and liquid as deer’s. He would not see them glazed with death.

“What do we do, Mister Tagren, sir?” The small boy asked as the building shook again.

“Go to Mother Dassah.” With a gentle shove, he sent the boy towards the cluster of children being gathered by the Sisters. Tearing his gaze from them, he swung down to the lower flower and began his advance towards the entrance where howls and hammerings demanded way. Rubble showered around as he stalked on; cracks began to run through the murals.

When he was first brought here for healing, he should have known they would come, drawn to light as flies to corpses.

Why would you give your life for them? The question tore like a barb, halting him before the ailing door.

There was no other way.

You can flee and live another day!

What was another day for him if there would be none for the children?

You owe the children nothing.

“I give my life for I love them!” he shouted. There was no one to hear him; he was alone.

Then how could I do any less for you?

The words, silent yet resounding, whisked all breath from his body.


He was here as the Sisters said, beside him…with him.

With a final groan, the hinges bent and the wood splintered. Calm, Tag drew his blade with a swish sibilant in the storm.

Perhaps, even through death, he would find Life after all.

- – - – -

From Lyn Perry

The way Tag judged his circumstances, he could die if he stayed or die if he left. Which was what Jud had intended all along. The phase-implant only worked ‘going out.’ If he tried to return—to phase ‘back in’—to his own timeline, he would die. Or so Jud said.

So he’d stick around, obviously. Think things through. Maybe figure things out. The only drawback was that he’d eventually meet his double. And that couldn’t be a good thing.

Or could it?

This particular dimension, this again from his former friend, was as close to an opposite parallel universe as they’d been able to find. They. The New Foundation. Whose goal was to eliminate all believers from their current timestream. Phase them into an alternate reality.

A reality where their mirror images were unbelievers. Haters of Christ.

Jud was a hater himself, a member of the New Foundation. He’d been the one to hand Tag over to his superiors. Tag couldn’t fathom his friend’s betrayal. How long had Jud been plotting, pretending to be a believer to gain Tag’s trust? Years, now. He kicked himself for being so naïve. So trusting.

And yet. Wasn’t trust the key to everything? He trusted God, whether he lived or died. He also trusted that he’d been sent to this timeline for a purpose…

Maybe meeting his double wouldn’t end in his death after all. Or if it did, who knew what good might come of it? What if he could share the love of God with his parallel self before he was killed? Could he convince himself—his other self, the hater of Christ—of the truth of Christ?

The question became more than academic when Tag spied his spitting image in the face of a young man walking his way. The man was holding a weapon, a slow smile forming on his face.

- – - – -

From Katie Lynn Daniels

The way Tag judged his circumstances, he could die if he stayed or die if he left. If he stayed they were burn the stable down around his ears—a small price to pay for the capture of the greatest thief who ever lived—and if he tried to leave they’d shoot him down without another thought. A fine target he would make, silhouetted against the flames of his failure.

His breath came more quickly, and his palms were slick with sweat. He tried to rub them on his thighs to dry them, but that just gave the sweat the opportunity to mingle with the dust on his clothes and form a nice grime that stuck to everything. He reached up to brush away the hair dangling in his eyes and left a streak of grime there as well. Giving up, he assessed his situation again, trying to find a third option.

There wasn’t one.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he muttered to himself, crawling around in the hay, looking for something, anything that would help. “Stupid to come here, stupid to take the job, stupid to think I could get away…”

The smoke was getting thicker, and it was getting hard to breathe. Tag hunkered down close to the floor and pulled his shirt up over his nose, careful to take shallow breaths.

Now that he wasn’t moving around and making distracting noises with his muttering and breathing he could hear the shouting from the archers outside.

“Raphael Taggert,” shouted the Captain in his high-pitched, nasal voice. “Surrender yourself to the queen’s law and your life will be spared.”

Tag allowed himself to snort in derision. Like he’d take the word of Captain Smarty-Pants over the inevitable shower of arrows waiting for him the minute he showed his face.

- – - – -

From Athelas Hale

The way Tag judged his circumstances, he could die if he stayed or die if he left.

Wind touched an ocean of grass, calling him. Stretching before Tag, the meadow boasted flawlessness that made him long to lie down and become a part of it.

The urge to speed the process of losing his mind hovered at the edge of his thoughts, even as the idea got the blue ribbon for fears. The world teemed with contradictions. A flawless world at first glance, it twisted the mind of anyone staying on long-term.

Focus, Tag. “Trevor!”

His voice echoed back.

Trying to fight mounting frustration, he ignored the voice in his head reminding him of his three more days. “Why are you like this? Can’t you be beautiful and good, or evil and ugly? You don’t have to trick people like this!”

The world laughed.

Hunching his shoulders, Tag shouted. “Trevor!”

Nothing. “And why don’t you quit with the whole insanity thing so Trevor could get home on his own?”

I could leave.

The thought—his thought—made him freeze. No.

“Abandon Trevor? Let him go mad without even realizing?” Tag forced emphasis into his voice. “Never.

But what if it’s too late—he’s already dead?

Tag knew the rules of the game. If he returned to Earth, he could have decades before the insanity set in. Here he would have three days—five until death.

Both options ended the same way, but every instinct screamed for more time.

Tag never expected to feel such intense fear.

Taking a shuddery breath, Tag balled his hands into fists, soundlessly repeating the words some Sunday school teacher once drilled into his head. “God hasn’t given us a spirit of fear, but of power and love, and a sound mind!

He screamed to the world. “You cannot stop me! I will find him!”

The world studied him, and did not laugh.

- – - – -

Five Reasons Why Supporting Enclave’s Kickstarter is a Good Idea

Blog | | Friday, July 25, 2014
Splickety Magazine owner/editor Ben Wolf shares five informed reasons to support Enclave Publishing ’s Kickstarter.

When Enclave Publishing (formerly Marcher Lord Press) announced its Kickstarter campaign to help fund and promote their fall 2014 lineup of books, Speculative Faith’s own E. Stephen Burnett posted about his support of the endeavor on his Facebook page.

And the thread caught fire. I’m writing today to clear up some misconceptions about what’s really going on, here.

Splickety Magzine editor and owner Ben Wolf

Splickety Magzine editor and owner Ben Wolf

Let me preface this by saying that I’ve had multiple conversations with both Steve Laube (owner of Enclave) and Thomas Umstaddt, Jr. (his web designer/marketing consultant on the Kickstarter campaign), about Enclave, marketing, and Kickstarter in general.

I’m not an employee of Enclave, nor do I work for Thomas. I’m the Executive Editor/Founder of Splickety Publishing Group, a freelance editor, and author. We don’t compete with Enclave because we publish magazines.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I have paid money to see both Thomas and Steve teach at conferences, and I have personally backed (at least) two of Thomas’s Kickstarter campaigns, both of which delivered the promised content for what the level of support I committed. I also intend to back the Enclave Kickstarter based on the reasons I’m going to detail below.

I say this to establish that I’m both more or less objective (I really admire and like both Steve and Thomas, and I’ve learned a ton from both of them) but also more attuned to what they’re trying to accomplish because of conversations we’ve had and based on past kickstarter campaigns and marketing endeavors.

I’m also well-acquainted with Jeff Gerke, the founder and former owner of Marcher Lord Press (MLP). He and I have also discussed the shift of MLP’s ownership from himself to Steve, and he has had nothing but praise for Steve and encouragement for readers, authors, and followers to continue to support MLP/Enclave under Steve’s management.

Without further delay, here are five reasons why we should support the Enclave Kickstarter.

1. Kickstarter is a legitimate crowdfunding site.

People/businesses use Kickstarter these days. It’s part of this new technological age we live in, and it’s silly to chastise Steve Laube, the owner of Enclave, for using a tool that is available to him.

Ever heard of venture capitalists or angel investors? Ever been given a loan or a gift from a friend, relative, or even a perfect stranger that you then used to accomplish something?

That’s what this is. It’s startup cash. It’s coming to Enclave in a different form, yes, but essentially it’s no different. In fact, it has additional benefits that don’t come with angel investors or venture capitalists.

2. They will deliver on their promises.

Some people have criticized them for using Kickstarter itself because of allegations of misuse or even fraud and scams that other users have run through Kickstarter, which is a legitimate concern.

But that’s not Kickstarter’s fault. That’s the fault of the folks who abused a great tool and cast Kickstarter in a negative light. Criticizing a company for using a tool that is available to them to expand their business is ridiculous, especially when that company (or the person or persons behind it) are known for their integrity.

Thomas UmStaddt, Jr. ran two Kickstarter campaigns in the last few years that I supported. Guess what happened? He delivered exactly what he said he would, and he delivered it earlier than he said he would.

Steve Laube is widely respected for his integrity and stellar career within the CBA. According to Amanda Luedeke, an agent from MacGregor Literary, Steve “would never do this to pocket money or improve his bottom line.”

As a further testament to his integrity, let me tell you a story that involves Steve and Havok, Splickety’s spec fic imprint:

Jeff Gerke committed ebook versions of all 40-ish of the books he’d published through MLP as a prize for Havok’s first ever contest in our July issue of this year. Then he went and sold the company to Steve.

I contacted Steve to follow up with him about the prize, and while he said he thought the prize was quite steep, he agreed to honor Jeff’s commitment. After the contest, he awarded the prize to our winning author. He didn’t argue or try to renegotiate—he just fulfilled the obligation, even though someone else had obligated him to do it.

Suffice it to say, I think you can trust these guys.


3. MLP may be five years old, but Enclave is just a baby.

Let’s be realistic, here. Enclave is, for all intents and purposes, a new business. When Jeff Gerke left MLP in Steve’s hands, there was one publishable manuscript available and a very different process and infrastructure. The rest had to be restarted from scratch.

Now, within six months (or so) of the purchase announcement date, there are five. That takes some serious spending (covers alone can range from $300 to $800 or more for great-quality work, plus Steve is paying top level editors their market wage while Jeff did the editing himself) and this Kickstarter is only trying to raise $2500. That’s easily 1/4 or smaller of the investment Steve is making in the launch of these new books.

Do you really think Steve needs an extra $2500 to make these books go? Come on. He’s just asking us to be good capitalists and to vote with our wallets. If you don’t want to vote, then don’t.

$2500 is a pittance, and the money itself is likely not the reason they’re doing it this way. In fact…

4. Kickstarter is as much a marketing effort as it is a fundraising effort.

enclavepublishingBy stirring up controversy we’ve just drawn more attention to the supposed trickery and evil of Enclave, and as such, now more people know their name. Mission accomplished.

As Kickstarter says on its own website: “A Kickstarter project does more than raise money. 
It builds community around your work.” Again, mission accomplished, especially since they’ve already surpassed their $2500 goal.

What’s more, it’s a convenient, fun way to preorder Enclave’s books. They have plenty of options (prices and rewards in exchange for various levels of commitments) for you to choose from should you decide to invest. That’s really what this is: a streamlined way to preorder books (at nice discounts, might I add).

Amanda Luedeke added that, “this is a way for him to take pre-orders without having to [go through] Amazon.” Apparently, it’s harder for small houses to get the perks that larger houses get from Amazon, and preorders are a part of that. This way Steve can offer his readers discounts without being at Amazon’s mercy.

5. Steve is one of us.

Steve Laube is a speculative fiction aficionado and he’s easily the nerdiest (in a positive, cerebral way) lit agent I’ve ever met. I swear to you—I was actually surprised at how big into spec fic he was. I had no idea. He’s an avid spec fic reader, and he knows and loves the genre better than most (if not all) of us do, Christian or otherwise.

He’s every bit as dedicated to making Enclave (and Christian speculative fiction on the whole) succeed in our marketplace as Jeff is/was, and he wants all of us to be a part of that.

Steve and Enclave are NOT evil or bad or stupid. Steve is going to take Christian spec fic to the next level, and we should help and support to do it. So, if you’ve got a grievance, air it out in the comments section, and let’s get to the root(s) of the issue(s) and find a way to move forward.

A Superstition Transformed

Blog | | Wednesday, July 23, 2014
An old superstition transformed into a new story

Outstanding among those beliefs that are universally characteristic of the religion of superstition is the conviction that “a man’s name is the essence of his being” (one Hebrew text says “a man’s name is his person” and another, “his name is his soul”). Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition


There’s an old superstition that names are powerful. Many cultures have believed that to know a person’s name is to have power over him, or to be freed from his power. The principle has been extended to the supernatural, with people seeking to conjure up the power of gods, angels, and demons by invoking their names.

Like all superstitions, this one shows both fear and a desire to control. Magic, real magic, has made great use of it; sorcerers, too, believed in the power of names. From the eleventh century come reports of witnesses – “learned and trustworthy men” – who claimed “that they had themselves seen magicians write names upon reeds and olive-leaves, which they cast before robbers and thus prevented their passage, or, having written such names upon new sherds, threw them into a raging sea and mollified it, or threw them before a man to bring about his sudden death.”

This idea has endured in folk tales – most famously in Rumpelstiltskin - and is now an established trope in modern fantasy and even, on occasion, sci-fi. Despite its various disreputable associations, it has a presence in Christian fantasy.

So how is a superstition transformed into a staple of fiction? It begins when people stop believing. If you genuinely believe in the mystic power of names, you will take it seriously – hiding your real name like people hide their PIN number, or worrying that you’ll curse your child by giving him an unlucky name. When you stop believing, the fun begins. What in our world would be bad science, or mere superstition, is the operating laws of different worlds. Everyone who reads speculative fiction knows this.

In Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, names and their power are at the heart of the story. The villains transform human beings into monsters by melding them with other creatures and then giving them new names. Their old selves are submerged and they become willing pawns for the villains. But unless and until the new name is given, the transformation remains incomplete. The victim’s old self is much closer to the surface and it’s easier for him to come back.

For these people, to hear their true names is painful. But it is also, if they don’t rebel, healing – and not for any magical, other-world reason. Their true names hurt and heal because the hearing reminds them who they were and what they lost; it brings them back to themselves.

The power-of-names theme is echoed throughout the saga. A lesser villain calls his enslaved workers ‘tools’ and tells them they have no names; the revolution begins when the workers start to share their names and band together. “What is a real name?” asks one character early on, hinting at hidden names and the truths hidden with them. And through it all the admonition and reminder comes again and again, Remember who you are.

Names, a character within the books says, have power. But it would be more true, even in his own world, to say that names have meaning. A person’s name is representative of his self, and to forget your name is to forget who you are. Unlike the old folk tales, there is no danger in telling others your true name, only in forgetting it yourself; there’s no power in knowing the names of others, only in making them forget their names.

Such subtle alteration is another way to revive and change old myths into new stories. Most legends and fairy tales, along with the fairy tale-worthy superstitions, are open for this sort of reconstruction, pagan origins or no. Have you ever been struck by a story’s transformation of a myth or superstition? Is there a myth or superstition you think ripe for such transformation?


[Note: This post was written for the CSFF Blog Tour of The Warden and the Wolf King, running this week, and is cross-posted to my blog. For full links to the blog tour, visit Rebecca Miller's site.]

‘The Apocalypse Door’ Opens on Spiritual Thrills

Reviews | | Wednesday, July 23, 2014 at 4:00 am
Warrior-priest bashes in heads, dispenses one-liners while battling demonic plot to fast-track end of world. ‘Nuff said.
Doing the Lord's work. With 'tude.

Doing the Lord’s work. With ‘tude.

The world around us contains more substance than is registered by our senses. The intangible spiritual realm is present and powerful. It teems with life … and with death. Christians know this better than most, and scriptural passages such as Ephesians 6 exhort us to never forget it.

So when the cosmic powers of this present darkness hatch diabolical plots, who on earth’s got humanity’s back? Who’ll stand up to Satan’s schemes? In evangelical fiction — as exemplified by the inimitable Frank Peretti — the spiritual SWAT teams tend to be headed by small-town pastors or recovering cynics who collaborate with martially-adept angels. In such stories, prayer is portrayed as the ultimate weapon, and the protagonist’s relationship with God becomes the primary determinant of his or her spiritual strength.

In Catholic fiction, things work a little differently. Enter Peter Crossman, modern-day Knight Templar and protag of James D. Macdonald’s The Apocalypse Door. This novel — along with several short stories coauthored by Macdonald and wife Debra Doyle and collected in The Confessions of Peter Crossman — is a cross between the James Bond, Indiana Jones, and Brother Cadfael franchises, set in the hardboiled detective genre, and seasoned with dashes of Hellboy and Constantine.

Who said it’s possible to have too much of a good thing?

As one of only thirty-three warrior-priests of the Inner Temple — that elite covey of Templar Knights unknown to even their secret-society compatriots — Peter Crossman is tasked with protecting holy places, the travelers therein, and artifacts of supernatural significance. To carry out this mandate he’s equipped with considerable resources, but none so effective as himself. Macdonald brings his extensive military experience to bear upon the verisimilitude of his plot, no hurdle of which is too-easily cleared. You will believe that Peter Crossman deserves the title with which he’s been endowed. You will believe it even when, by the end of the story, he slumps before you shaken, battered, fatigued, and desperate.

The breathless action begins in Newark, New Jersey, where Crossman’s been charged with infiltrating a suspicious warehouse by his superiors in Chatillon, France. Sounds mundane, you say? Not with the way Macdonald writes. The man is a magnificent wordsmith — his descriptions concise and punchy yet precisely evocative, his action scenes blocked and paced with expert care and ferocious energy, his dialog dancing with deft one-liners. Of course, the plot itself doesn’t depend on stylistic flourishes: its stakes swiftly swell to cataclysmic proportions, entangling our heroes in a labyrinthine conspiracy to fast-track the End of the Age.

Let me just get this out in the open: I loved this book. I could read it all day, every day. It’s immensely entertaining. From Crossman’s contraction-laced slang supposedly translated from the Latin, to his snappy banter with his assassin-nun comrade — Sister Mary Magdalene of the Special Action Executive of the Poor Clares (!) — the Rule of Cool is adhered to hard. And yet behind the novel’s escapism there lurks a spiritual sobriety that sets it apart from your run-of-the-mill urban fantasy. Only in a Peter Crossman novel could you read a sentence that said “I [sprinted across the ground] like lust through a teenaged heart” and not bust out laughing.

You see, Crossman is an actual priest. As in: he’s celibate, he gives and receives confession, and he administers absolution to his enemies after shooting them. This is not portrayed ironically. Twin epigraphs open the novel: the Catholic Act of Contrition and John 8:44. And throughout the duration of the story that follows, sin is presented as a serious problem. It’s real, pervasive, and dangerous. It can’t be ignored. It must be dealt with, confronted.

Of course, since this is Catholic fiction, the in-world means for confronting sin seem rote and disconnected to this Reformed reviewer. Crossman must always remain conscious of his state of grace, lest he perish with unconfessed sin and let slip his salvation. When opposed by demonic forces, he relies on the power invested in objects such as crucifixes and holy water instead of going directly to the Source of that power through prayer. This formulaic approach leaves little room for an exploration of Crossman’s actual relationship with his God.

His relationship with sin, however, gets a more thorough examination. The novel’s numbered chapters alternate with flashbacks chronicling Crossman’s dark past as a CIA operative in South America — an account which predates and sets up his conversion to the faith. Macdonald does something thematically gutsy with this account — something that may offend the sensibilities of those unconvinced that God works through all things for the good of those He’s called according to His purpose — but something that, in retrospect, I respect a lot. It demonstrates a level of confidence in the reader rarely equalled, in my opinion, by evangelical authors.

The Apocalypse Door flings open a rousing-yet-religiously-grounded entryway to the spiritual-thriller subgenre. If you love the idea of secret-agent priests and action-girl nuns battling Peretti-esque perils while respecting ecclesiastical dictates, then this is a knob you need to turn.

Finding the Edgy in Christian Fiction

Blog | | Tuesday, July 22, 2014
God’s calling for edgy Christian fiction.

Cliff edgeWhat is your definition of “edgy Christian fiction”?

For many it is a story that contains sex and/or cussing. While violence is generally accepted, graphic gore would be considered edgy. Horror is also edgy, especially if it contains the aforementioned gore. Another common edgy element is magic or anything smacking of paganism.

The list could go on. The most restrictive Christian publisher, Steeple Hill (an imprint of Harlequin), as late as November of 2009, had a whole list of terms and situations to avoid as too edgy for their audience. Today, while still retaining restrictions, they’ve dropped a lot of that list and have loosened up a bit.

But is this really the definition of edgy Christian fiction?

To answer that, we’ll first define “edgy” in this context.

Daring, provocative, or trend-setting.
American Heritage Dictionary

Daringly innovative; on the cutting edge.

Having a bold, provocative, or unconventional quality.

The above list might be provocative for some Christians and therefore daring and bold for the author and publisher, but trend setting? Innovative? That train left a long time ago in the general market.

There’s the catch. Like last week’s post on conversion scenes, what any one person considers edgy will be subjective based on their experience and beliefs. Consequently, it is the audience in general that determines what is edgy for them. What is edgy for a CBA bookstore patron will be viewed as mild and quaint for a majority of Barnes & Noble patrons. Sometimes for a majority of Christians too.

In last week’s comments, Lyn Perry mentioned the following:

My niece who writes Christian women’s fiction included a damn in her book, an organic expression from a character who was failing in life but eventually got back on the road to restoration. A reviewer marked her book as one star saying there were vulgarities in it!

For that reviewer, having a character say, “damn” in a book is edgy. For many Christians and a host of non-Christians, they wouldn’t even blink.

Yet, there is still a problem. Depending on which side of the edgy fence one sits on, the above definition of edgy Christian fiction paints “edgy” as a negative. When people hear “edgy Christian fiction,” they either see it as more realistic fiction or immorality invading Christian fiction. It is like a tug-of-war between the two camps.

My take? Both sides are focused on the wrong edge.

The above list of edgy issues are primarily edgy to Christians. That is the wrong audience to define edgy Christian fiction that we should strive for. I’ll let Jesus sum it up.

Blessed are ye, when men shall hate you, and when they shall separate you from their company, and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for the Son of man’s sake. 23 Rejoice ye in that day, and leap for joy: for, behold, your reward is great in heaven: for in the like manner did their fathers unto the prophets.
(Luke 6:22-23 KJV)

We are called to be edgy. Not to fellow Christians, but to the general market. How?

By dealing with issues the general market considers edgy using a Christian worldview in a realistic manner. Issues like rape, adultery, premarital sex, marriage, dating, substance abuse, wife abuse, ministerial abuse, homosexuality, politics, greed, earthly authority, or insert your favorite sin. The list is long.

True, dealing with some of those issues may necessitate being edgy to Christians as well. The point is if we are only edgy to Christians, then we’ve missed the blessing Jesus gave us. If we are only edgy to Christians, then we’ve really played it safe and said little. Cussing and sex is not edgy in the general market.

What truly edgy Christian fiction have you read of late?

2014 Spec Faith Summer Writing Challenge, Evaluation Phase

Blog | | Monday, July 21, 2014
The Spec Faith Writing Challenge is a huge opportunity for writers to learn what readers think, but it depends upon faithful readers willing to put their opinions out there.

2014 Summer Writing ChallengeThe 2014 Summer Writing Challenge officially closed submissions at midnight (Pacific time) last night. Now we enter the evaluation phase which is critical to the success of this contest, especially for those whose entries came in near the deadline.

We want all entries to have the opportunity for readers to respond. Consequently, we are dedicating this week to evaluation—thumbs up for the entries we like (an unlimited number) and feedback designed to help writers.

One thing that writers need is to know how their writing comes across to others. Generally we like what we write (or we wouldn’t have written it in the first place), and often our most supportive loved ones—close friends and family—like what we write simply because we wrote it.

But what about that host of readers out there who we hope to engage? Do they get what we’re trying to say? Do they imagine the scene we’re trying to paint? Do they understand the character we’re trying to present?

Along comes the Spec Faith Writing Challenge and readers get to tell writers those very things. It’s a huge opportunity for writers to learn, but it depends upon faithful readers willing to put their opinions out there.

Sometimes these readers are also writers, and they can give technical advice. Sometimes the readers are, well, readers, and they can say what they like and what they didn’t like. Both are helpful, helpful, helpful.

Let’s face it. Writers pay for critiques just to find out what someone else thinks of their writing. Or they join critique groups and drive miles and spend hours reviewing other manuscripts just so they can get feedback on their writing.

Here in the Spec Faith Summer Writing Challenge, readers offer what every writer needs because they want to see Christian speculative fiction become the best it can be. Or because they wish to be helpful. Or perhaps to give back to others what they themselves have received.

Whatever the reason, the strength of the challenge lies in the feedback—because every writer who entered and receives feedback wins a bit of information they can use to become a better writer.

So here’s the second half of the challenge: take time to give feedback to as many entries as you can. Then invite your friends who are readers (and they don’t have to be fans of speculative fiction) to stop by and do likewise. The more feedback a person gets, the more accurate the picture they’ll receive of their writing.

Thanks to all who have and who will participate.

Female Thor: Another Marvel Comics Gimmick

Blog | | Friday, July 18, 2014
Do women really want to see all male heroes supplanted with women as the Doctor or even Thor?
“Thou mortals surely jest.”

“Thou mortals surely jest.”

So, the Internet is all abuzz about the announcement by Marvel that there’s going to be a female Thor.1

Due to the media coverage, there’s quite a bit of confusion and misinformation out there. A few key issues are worth clarifying.

1) Thor is not getting a sex change. The person who is Thor will still be around with his gender intact, but the powers of Thor will be wielded by a woman.

When it comes to the confusion, the media is at fault for reporting this “story,” because it’s a pure PR gimmick as anyone who follows the comic book world knows. The average person has a view that most heroes are defined by one person: Peter Parker is Spider-man, Bruce Wayne is Batman, Steve Rogers is Captain America, and Tony Stark is Iron Man. However at different times, Ben Reilly was Spider-man, Bucky Barnes was Captain America, Dick Grayson was Batman, and Jim Rhodes was Iron Man. Comic companies like to imagine that a costumed identity can be passed on. Usually, the character people associate with the identity end up returning, as will no doubt be the case with Thor.

Thor is an odd case. While we can imagine a female Captain America, Thor is not an androgynous name. Marvel does have some precedent to justify this, going back to a What If? alternate universe story for the 1970s as well as both the Young Avenger movies, and the MC2 Universe featuring teenage girls wielding Thor-like powers.

2) This will have no impact whatsoever on the upcoming Avengers movie. The movies and the comics exist in separate universes, though it’s probably fair to wonder if this will all be resolved by the time the movie comes out.

3) Why is Marvel doing this? Because gimmicks are Marvel’s 21st century substitute for writing good stories that people want to read. Through stories like Civil War, One More Day, Avengers v. X-Men, Shadowlands, and the entire Superior Spider-Man saga, Marvel has made a habit of telling stories that violate the characters they’re writing but attract controversy and sell books. Thor is going through this change due to weak sales. In June, Thor: God of Thunder #23 ranked #55 with less than 40,000 copies sold.

As if to emphasize this strategy, the day after word of the female Thor came out, it was announced that the #71 ranked Captain America will feature African-American superhero Sam Wilson as the new Captain America.

Marvel especially likes it when they can start a book off with a new Issue 1. Marvel will have collectors rush to grab it in the hopes that it’ll someday be worth something and will lead to a bump in sales. That’s why they did a new Issue 1 for Daredevil after 36 issues, for the Incredible Hulk after 20 issues, and Captain Marvel after 17.

Like Superior Spider-Man, this is a gimmick that will run until Marvel feels sales slipping, then they’ll go back to the original Thor.

The other thing that drives this is the same thing that drives the, “They should make the next Doctor a woman,” calls that occur whenever Doctor Who is being recast. There’s a belief that women want to see all heroes supplanted with heroines. However, Doctor Who showrunner Stephen Moffat said of the decision not to have a female Doctor, “Oddly enough most people who said they were dead against it — and I know I’ll get into trouble for saying this — were women.”

Having a woman take over the lead in an existing TV show or a comic represents an attempt to grow market share among women that’s seen as less risky than investing the time and marketing budget to create a brand for a new character, but there’s little evidence women are really interested in female characters that are derivative substitutes for male characters. While a female Thor may be a great gimmick, what is more likely to excite readers and viewers are unique and well-written female characters.

Avatars of Forgiveness, Part 2: Katara’s Vengeance

Blog | | Thursday, July 17, 2014
“Avatar: The Last Airbender” reflects Biblical truth: we can’t yet forgive but we must love unrepentant evildoers.

Should Christians forgive everyone who offends them?

I don’t believe the Bible teaches this — and it’s a pleasant bonus that most honest stories provide supporting evidence. One such story is acclaimed animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender, and if you haven’t seen the series then please you may read the footnote here but don’t read further because: spoilers.1

In the season 3 story “The Southern Raiders,” Zuko — whose own journey we explored last week — humbly but boldly confronts Katara for her lack of forgiving him. When he learns why she is particularly bitter against the Fire Nation, Zuko takes a courageous step: he offers to help Katara find the Fire Nation soldier who personally killed Katara’s mother.

“I’m afraid I’m not taking any prisoners today.”

“I’m afraid I’m not taking any prisoners today.”

But before they leave, Aang confronts them.

Aang: The monks used to say that revenge is like a two-headed rat viper. While you watch your enemy go down, you’re being poisoned yourself.

Zuko: That’s cute, but this isn’t Air Temple preschool. It’s the real world.

Katara: Now that I know he’s out there, now that I know we can find him, I feel like I have no choice.

Aang: Katara, you do have a choice: forgiveness.2

Aang’s unspoken definition of “forgiveness” is very common among Christians and anyone else. It’s a “forgiveness” based solely on one’s personal feelings about an offender.

In part 1 I defined this “forgiveness” as a sort of pseudonym for relinquishing bitterness or desire for vengeance. Scripture encourages this, because we must love our enemies and not hate them; instead we “leave it to the wrath of God,” Who alone will repay exclusive vengeance against evildoers (Rom. 12:14–21). But Scripture never calls this action “forgiveness,” and only ever defines and encourages forgiveness as an active process in which someone reconciles with an offender who willingly repents of sin.

Unpacking Forgiveness author Chris Brauns challenges the alternate “forgiveness” view:

“Therapeutic forgiveness” insists that forgiveness is at its core a feeling. Our culture has picked up on this in a big way. When most people say that they forgive, they mean that it is a private matter in which he or she is not going to feel bitter. […]

Therapeutic forgiveness also diminishes the necessity of two parties working out there differences. If forgiveness is simply how I feel, there is no need to worry about the relationship.3

Zuko, who knows a little something about not forgiving unrepentant evildoers, challenges Aang’s “forgiveness” understanding:4

Zuko: That’s the same as doing nothing!

Aang: No, it’s not. It’s easy to do nothing, but it’s hard to forgive.

Katara: It’s not just hard. It’s impossible.

Such forgiveness is impossible — not if we preserve any Biblical sense of mercy and justice that presents us with two frustrating dual truths: 1) we must love our enemies and pray for offenders, 2) we must know that God Himself will someday punish them (if not save them).

In fact, even as Jesus warns us that we must forgive others — in an immediate and broader ministry context that presumes the offenders have repented, even multiple times5 — He bases this on God’s forgiveness, and states that God does not forgive all people:

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Matthew 6:14-15

Soon Katara and Zuko discover the Fire Nation soldier who killed Katara’s mother.

(Katara holds out both her arms to halt the falling raindrops and create a shield above the three of them. After a moments she blasts water at Yon Rha and transforms the stream into a flurry of ice daggers. Yon Rha crouches in fear of death — but soon looks up. The ice daggers float before him. Katara’s expression softens. She releases the daggers, which liquefy and splash to the ground.)

Yon Rha: I did a bad thing! I know I did and you deserve revenge, so why don’t you take my mother? That would be fair!

Katara: (Sorrowfully.) I always wondered what kind of person could do such a thing. But now that I see you, I think I understand. There’s just nothing inside you, nothing at all. You’re pathetic and sad and empty.

Yon Rha: (Whimpering) Please, spare me!

Katara: But as much as I hate you … (She turns away.) I just can’t do it.

(They turn away. Yon Rha continues weeping miserably in the rain as the scene ends)

Katara refuses vengeance. In a sense, she “left it to the wrath of God” — or, in the world of Avatar, to the “wrath” of an ultimately self-correcting universe that punishes evildoers.

(The scene cuts to a boardwalk overlooking the water, later in the day. We see Katara sitting on the edge of the dock with her eyes closed. Sadly she opens her eyes.)

Aang: Katara? Are you okay?

Katara: I’m doing fine.

Aang: Zuko told me what you did. Or what you didn’t do, I guess. I’m proud of you.

Katara: I wanted to do it. I wanted to take out all my anger at him, but I couldn’t. I don’t know if it’s because I’m too weak to do it or because I’m strong enough not to.

Aang: You did the right thing. Forgiveness is the first step you have to take to begin healing.

Katara: (Rises from boardwalk.) But I didn’t forgive him. I’ll never forgive him.

Yes. This is not “forgiveness.” It is simple release of vengeance. True forgiveness is greater, scarier, and more reflective of how God saves. It is only for people who choose to repent and experience reconciliation (or, in some cases, the hope of reconciliation in eternity).

Watch how Avatar’s story beautifully reflects this truth.

Katara: (Smiles at Zuko and walks up to him) … But I am ready to forgive you.

(In a moment that Avatar fans have anticipated for years, ever since the villainous Zuko hated the Avatar then repented of his sin, the two embrace in reconciliation.)

(Next week: We’ll conclude this series by exploring of Aang’s quest to find balance — between his Avatar responsibility to exact justice against the Fire Lord, and the mercy he was always taught to show to all living things.)

  1. Avatar: The Last Airbender follows the adventures of Aang, lone survivor of a lost tribe whose people can “bend” or control air. But as the messianic “Avatar,” Aang is the only person who can also bend all four elements: water, earth, fire and air. And as the world’s spiritual leader, Aang must defeat the one element-based people group that has waged war on the others for about 110 years, the Fire Nation.
  2. Transcript based on “The Southern Raiders” episode transcript at Avatar.Wiki.com.
  3. Following Up On Forgiveness, Kevin DeYoung with Chris Brauns, The Gospel Coalition, Feb. 13, 2014.
  4. Aang also favors nonviolence and vegetarianism. But the story only asks us to consider his beliefs; it does not say they’re superior.
  5. In Matt. 18:22, Jesus insists that we must forgive a “brother” — a true spiritual sibling — an infinite amount of times, no matter how many times the brother truly repents. The parallel account in Luke 17:3-4 makes more explicit the fact that the brother sins and then repents.

Finding God in Quantum Leap

Blog | | Wednesday, July 16, 2014
“Quantum Leap” reminds me how God works through us to accomplish good even in small ways.

Netflix can be both a blessing and a curse.

I call it a blessing because it’s allowed me to sample and experience all sorts of wonderful things. I watched the first five seasons of Dr. Who plus the first two of Sherlock thanks to instant streaming. I was able to finally conquer all of the Star Trek shows ever made because they were all available to me. I even manage to sneak in some educational stuff too, like a great documentary on King Richard III.

At the same time, it’s a curse, because when I should be doing more productive things, I know that Netflix is sitting there, just waiting for me to fire it up and get lost in another show, either a new one or an old favorite.

Which brings me to Quantum Leap.

Do you remember that show? It was about… Well, hang on. Watch this video, it’ll get you up to speed pretty quickly:

I still get chills watching that. Love. It.

And that’s mostly because I loved this show, this idea of Sam Beckett dropping into people’s lives to make things better.

What I always found fascinating, though, was that we never knew for sure why Sam was ping-ponging through space and time. Sure, things went a little “ca-ca” when he stepped in the quantum leap accelerator and vanished, but what kept him popping in and out of these folks? During the series, Sam would attribute his seemingly random time travel to “God or Fate or Time.” Sam never believed that his journey was the result of random chance. He always believed that some sort of cosmic being greater than himself that sent him leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong.

Now here’s the thing: for the majority of the series, we never know what sent Sam a-leapin’. Even if the strange force were “God,” there was no evidence that this particular deity was the Christian one. For all we knew, it was just some nebulous amalgamation of different divinities, all smooshed together into one generic god-like thingamajig.

Quantum-Leap-final-epThen, of course, we learned in the finale that God was actually a bartender in what I believe was a Pennsylvania mining town (a fact I can’t confirm because, for some odd reason, Netflix doesn’t have every episode). The less said about that, the better. I’m still a little miffed that Sam never made it home again.

But even if God is an overweight suds-slinger, I still see some glimmers of the true God in the whatever-it-was that sent Sam leaping throughout his own lifetime.

For starters, there’s his mission to “put right what once went wrong.” Think about it this way: the people involved in the original histories made a mess of things. They did their best but it wasn’t good enough and they wound up creating a sinkhole that consumed their lives and those around them. The only way for them to be lifted out of that morass was for someone else to step into their lives, putting on their frail flesh, and doing what they weren’t capable of doing. In some ways, Sam’s intervention in the lives of others resonates with the echoes of God’s own grace, of His Son becoming incarnate in our fallen world to save us from our sins.

… okay, yeah, I may be reaching there a bit.

But there is one other thought that’s sort of bouncing around in my brain right now, and that’s how sometimes, Sam’s Leaps included very minor things.

Let me give you an example. In one early episode, Sam leaps into a hit man for the mafia. This mafioso was…well, canoodling with the Don’s ex-girlfriend. Part of Sam’s mission is to get the two lovebirds together and the hit man out of the mob. And, due to some rather bizarre circumstances, Sam manages to do just that, interrupting a bingo game in the process.

Only he doesn’t Leap out.

Flummoxed and unsure of how to proceed, Sam turns to Al, his holographic adviser, for help. Al suggests that Sam take over calling the numbers. He does so and, as a result, the hit man’s grandmother finally wins a game. And that’s all it takes. Sam disappears in a flash of blue light, moving on to take part in what can only be generously described as a rip off of Driving Miss Daisy.

That isn’t the only time that Sam’s Leap is dependent, not on big, flashy save-the-day heroics, but on little kindnesses that don’t seem to matter much.

It puts me very much in mind of what Jesus has to say in Matthew 25:

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’

Sometimes the fruit we’re called on to bear aren’t huge or flashy. Sometimes they’re so little we won’t even notice them ourselves. But it’s my sincere belief that when we live out our Christian faith, we too will strive to make people’s lives better, to put right what hopefully won’t go wrong. And we keep doing that, knowing that someday, we will leap home.

Okay, that was completely over the top, wasn’t it? Sorry. I will say this, though. I’m not quite done with Quantum Leap just yet. Swing on by my personal blog tomorrow morning to see how, if I could, I would reboot Quantum Leap for a new generation.

Conversion Scenes: Are They Real?

Blog | | Tuesday, July 15, 2014
The bigger issue in my mind isn’t whether a story has a conversion scene or not, but how well it is portrayed.

256px-Charlotte_catherine_de_la_Trémoille_de_Condé_Guillain_Louvre_LP_400If you’ve hung around Christian writers much, especially those outside the publishers who produce books for the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association), you’ve no doubt ran across the accusation that Christian fiction often contains an “obligatory” conversion scene. As if it is a required event.

Yes, much Christian fiction does show conversions.

I’ve even got a couple in my Christian books, and it isn’t through a CBA publisher.

But author Robin Lee Hatcher disagrees on the “obligatory” idea.

The interesting thing to me is that I’ve written 18 novels for five CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) publishers thus far, and never once has an editor asked me to include a conversion scene.

Adding that the real reason you see so many in Christian fiction is:

Readers of fiction are drawn to stories that entertain them, but they also look for stories that will affirm their beliefs. Readers of romance want their belief in two people finding lasting love to be affirmed. Readers of mysteries want their belief that justice will be done to be affirmed. And readers of Christian fiction want the truths of their faith to be affirmed. Conversion scenes are a natural part of that affirmation.

I’d say yes and no. I get what she is saying: conversion scenes aren’t generally included because a Christian publisher refuses to publish a story without one, but because it is a genre expectation. However, a genre expectation also makes a particular concept or event obligatory.

Like in romance, the happy ending with the protagonists walking away hand in hand and head over heels in love, if not also walking down the wedding aisle, is the expected outcome. In fantasy, the hero is expected to win in the end, even if through great cost. There are exceptions to these, but they are the expected conventions.

But she has a point. Within Christian culture, like much any other culture, we like to have our beliefs and experience affirmed.

That is why Christian novels tend to have conversions, not in the hopes of saving a sinner, but to encourage a saint. This is exactly what so much of worship is about. We sing that song we’ve sung all our life not because we expect it to reveal an unrealized truth, but to affirm our faith in Christ. Much like people sing the national anthem or go to clubs with like-minded individuals.

The bigger issue in my mind isn’t whether a story has a conversion scene or not, but how well it is portrayed.

On one end of the Bell curve, conversion scenes low on motivation and high on author arbitrariness give them a tacked on feel. It happens not because the character is sufficiently motivated to change, but because the author wants it to happen at that point. In essence, the conversion scene isn’t connected as part of the fuller character arc.

On the other end are conversion scenes so organic to the story and character that the reader hardly notices them. Indeed, for the conversion to not happen would make the story unrealistic.

Between those two ends lands the bulk of conversion scenes. I know, I know. I can hear the protest. “No, no. Most conversion scenes fall into the first category!” Or “You’ve got it all wrong. Most conversion scenes I’ve read fit in the second category.”

You know what? You are both right. How?

A reader’s experience will dictate whether most conversion scenes come across as realistic or not.

To a person who grew up in the church, where conversion was more a realization of what they believed than a decision made at one moment, most conversion stories aren’t going to feel as realistic. In contrast, someone who had a radical conversion moment, such conversions are going to feel real.

Someone who grew up seeing people converted regularly will tend to have fewer issues with conversions in fiction. In short, one’s overall experiences will vastly influence the believability of a fictional conversion that lands in the middle of the bell curve.

By way of example, in growing up and through most of my adult life, I rarely spent much time around people who cussed a lot. Sure, I experienced it here and there, but by and large the people I hung out with didn’t cuss. If they did, not around me.

Consequently, a book with a lot of cussing doesn’t feel realistic to me. It takes me out of the story. Meanwhile, someone else whose parents cussed regularly, or most of their friends do, is going to feel like such language makes the story more true to life.

Believability is based on our own beliefs and life experiences.

Take the conversion of the “journalist” in the God is Not Dead movie. The whole movie she is out to prove this whole God thing is nonsense. Within a few minutes of confronting the Duck Dynasty group about their faith, she talks with the singing group and converts, seemingly out of the blue.

From my perspective, that conversion falls into the first category. Not that it is impossible, but there wasn’t much character arc foreshadowing indicating she was struggling with her faith that God didn’t exist.

However, someone who had such a Pauline conversion, or watched it happen frequently at church, that conversion will look quite believable. It all goes back to any one person’s experience and beliefs as to whether it feels realistic.

Can you name some conversions in novels you’ve read that felt real to you? Can you identify some that didn’t ring true? Why or why not?