Thursday, November 1, 2012

Honesty and Your Audience

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the scope of my book--the reach behind the story--as I polish up my proposal and put all those finishing touches on things.

Today I want to chat about the importance of knowing your audience, but particularly, being honest with them. Let me start with an example from my own story. In my book, one of my heroine's best friends finds out she is pregnant out of wedlock in the first chapter. At one point, she looks at the heroine and says she feels like she sold her birthright for soup, and the soup wasn't even that good.

Now, let's just say it. I thought this joke was pretty clever. Biblical humor, you know? That's how I roll. But when I had my paid critique with Allison Pittman at the ACFW conference, she told me this section felt artificial to her, like people in real life would never make that kind of reference.

I'll be honest. At first I was resistant because it would mean giving up my soup joke. :) But as I continued reading through my story, I began to visualize actual readers. That's when things changed.

I think it's very easy for writers, especially yet-to-be published writers, to feel as if we are writing to a computer screen. At best, it seems to be an act of worship just between God and ourselves. So rarely do we ever step back to actually ask God to give us a vision of our future readership.

I read a blog/newsletter from Robin Jones Gunn a few months back where she told a story about the prayer she prayed before finding a publisher for the Christy Miller Series. This is the excerpt from Robin's website: "At one low point when I was ready to give up I came across a poignant verse in Psalm 102:18. The words went deep inside and I wrote the verse on a card with a picture of a mother reading a book to a young girl. The handwritten letters have faded. It says, 'Let this be written for a future generation that a people not yet created may praise the Lord."

When I first read those words, I cried. I mean, actually cried. Know why? Because I am part of the generation Robin prayed for. I am part of this vision she had.

May God give us such a hope, such a vision for our own stories.

Let's talk about some ways knowing your audience makes a difference in your story. For me, the turning point that brought clarity was when I walked into my secular college classroom and imagined my students reading my story. Would they understand the birthright reference? Probably not. And if they did understand it, would it resonate with them? No. Absolutely not.

It was then I realized the importance of "getting real" with our future readers, because now is the time we are writing the words that will someday touch their hearts. Let's make the opportunity count. Here are some ways to remember so we can do that well.

  • The way you handle faith elements.
If you're writing Christian fiction, the faith-based element of your story should be tied to the character's arc, and thus must be not only believable, but impactful. Don't cheapen the power of the Gospel by watering it down. The Bible says the Word of God will not return void. 2 Timothy 3:16 says that "all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness." I believe we as Christian writers are doing far too little praying over our future readership. What an incredible ministry we have to touch people's hearts through the power of stories. If we don't take time to shape strong stories or to be honest with our readers, intentionally or not, we are offering them less than they deserve, and we are cheapening the reputation of Christian fiction. In my experience, ABA readers are open to faith-based stories (after all, who doesn't want to read about redemption?), but they want the inspirational element to feel organic. And frankly, as a reader, I do too. The story of redemption is messy and real.
  • "Christianese" language.
This is one of my pet peeves, and ironically, is also the problem with the example I gave from my own manuscript earlier in this post. People just don't like churchy language. Imagine yourself at a Star Trek convention. Hard to do, I know, but stick with me here. You're trying to have a meaningful conversation with someone, but they just keep saying "live long and prosper." What are you thinking? Uh, "weeeeirrrd." Have you ever been in a church service where someone keeps saying a catch phrase like "glory to God" in the same way? I believe we really have to be careful of our churchy language, because we don't want our audience to feel like they're left out of some kind of secret club. I'm not suggesting we water down the inspirational message. Quite the contrary, actually. I've found that the more purging we do of this artificiality or religious lingo, the more powerful the actual faith-based elements become, because they seem so much more honest and genuine.
  • Your empathy for the hurting.
The older I get, the more I realize something. We're not really as different from other people as we'd like to think we are. It's true what they say--everyone has a story. Your job as an author is to consider every side of that story. Don't write off a character, even a villain, as being completely one dimensional. Here's an example. I can't imagine a life where I had casual sex with a bunch of men before getting married. It's easy for me to sort of hold my chin high and say, "Oh, good job, you." But is that really the calling of Christ? What if things had been different for me? What if I had grown up in a home where I hadn't felt secure or valued? What if I didn't know God and instead tried to be a generally good person according to what society says is acceptable behavior for a woman in her twenties? What if I got pregnant, or caught a disease? How heartbreaking would that impermanence of relationships be for me? If you're having trouble  relating to a character, ask yourself what it would take for you to do what that character just did (and it may be vastly more serious than casual sex). Think you'd never hurt another human being? What if they took one of your kids? I'm suggesting you should go Jack Bauer on anybody, but I'm just saying. If we can't empathize with the hurting, maybe we're not being honest enough with ourselves.

To write well, we must be empathetic. We absolutely cannot consider ourselves better than others, or our readers will sense that elitism and resent it. Besides, books are one of the mightiest forms of ministry. We have a responsibility to love our readers at the point of their need, even as Christ loves them... and us.

Lord, give us eyes to see past the vision of our own hearts and into the high calling You've put on our lives.

Have you ever read a book that just didn't feel "real"? What about it gave you that impression? How can we avoid coming across as artificial to readers?


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Beth K. Vogt said...

An excellent post, Ashley -- one written from your heart.

One thing I've realized is that no two writers will weave spiritual truth through a book the same way. I once read an article about the four ways to write about spiritual truth. Imagine my surprise when I realized I didn't write any of those four ways. My first reaction: I'm doing it wrong!
Then I realized I was writing according to my voice and my spiritual gifting ... and, I hope and pray, God's leading.

I also think it's good to have others read my writing to make sure the scenes don't sound trite or overdone -- or don't miss the mark altogether --just like you did with your paid critique.

Thanks for today's post!

Cindy Barclay said...

Thanks Ashley- I'm a new subscriber and I'm learning so much with each post! Authenticity and empathy really clicked for me today- I'm part of the generation that began reading Christian fiction 40 years ago (wow- did I just say that? :) ) I've seen such a dramatic progression of "real" stories replacing "christian-perfect people" stories with happily ever after. Truth has the power to minister deep and set people free!

Lindsay Harrel said...

Hitting it out of the ballpark today, Ash. Connecting with people where they're at...that's what we SHOULD be about, shouldn't it?

After all, that's what God does with us.

Jennifer K. Hale said...

Love this post, Ashley. I love the bit about Robin Jones Gunn. That really touched me-- I am one of the ones she prayed about, too! The Christy Miller series introduced me to the world of Christian fiction and I am saving those books for a future daughter (okay, at this point that's not likely), niece or granddaughter. Look where I am because of those books!

Cynthia Herron said...

Loved this, Ashley! Awesome post!

Yes, I've read many books over the years that felt "artificial" or contrived, etc.

I try not to sound too "preachy" as I write (even though there are days where I truly do just want to say "Well, praise the Lord!" 'cause I'm beyond awed by Him), but I never want to sound fake or use what many folks might perceive as cliched language.

The learning curve is a doozy sometimes.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Yes, I've read books that don't feel "real"--unfortunately within the CBA. You might be barreling along, deep in the plot, and suddenly the MCs start preaching to each other. WHAT? I'm a Christian, and I discuss things w/my Christian friends in real life. But why would we need to preach to each other? To explain the plan of salvation to each other, when we're already saved?

I love your advice of keeping it w/the character arc. YES, we can talk about spiritual things in the CBA--one of the best perks of writing in it. But we can't contrive speeches and dialogue and shove them on readers, expecting them to be nodding along. More often, they'll be nodding off.

Great post. And the best villains are those that are multi-dimensional, not just straight evil. You feel bad for them...might even sympathize with them...till you realize they're insane! (Talented Mr. Ripley springs to mind here)

Jeanne T said...

Ashley, another beautiful post. Thanks for sharing your heart, and how you're learning to write "real." One of my characters is a challenge for me, and I think I need to put myself more in her shoes. Thanks for your wise words today!

Lisa said...

Thank you for this post, so very encouraging!

Keli Gwyn said...

Thanks for a great post, Ashley, with an important message. One of the things that's meant the most to me as readers have reacted to my story is that those commenting on the Christian content have said say the book doesn't come across as "preachy." I thank the Lord for the wonderful teaching I've received over the past few years, because my early works were so "religious" they could have come across as heavy-handed at best or even downright offensive.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Ooh, this is really good stuff, Ashley! I totally get what you're saying in this post and I'm definitely going to keep it in mind when I'm trying to write for a specific reader.

What you wrote about Christianese language really resonated with me. When I came to the Lord as an adult and started going to church for the very first time in my life, I had NO idea what everyone was talking about. I definitely had a stereotype of Christian fiction from that, and thought stories would be full of that same language and a lifestyle I wasn't familiar with. Or really preachy, even. But I started reading Christian romance and *gasp*! Oh my gosh, Christians actually dated, too. Oh, and they kissed. Oh, and they were actually sinners, too? Whoa! It just kind of bowled me over that there were Christian authors that wrote about real people.

If not for those first books I read, I might never have started writing Christian fiction (and stuck with secular instead). But those authors were writing toward a certain group of people, and I KNOW that is one of my biggest goals with writing what I do, and that's not to put certain Christians or even non-Christians with an open mind in a certain box.

Whew! Sorry such a long comment :)

Amy Jane (Untangling Tales) said...

More and more I'm seeing all these principles in real life as well.

I'm finding myself in a possession where I'm learning what it means to "carry one another's burdens" and if I go into that situation with that elitist mentality, or without the *weight* of 'there's a whole story behind this,' I couldn't minister.

That is to say, I can't say which came first (the need or the story analogies), but my ability to remain connected to broken people in this interaction has all come out of my story training:

Looking at motivation, teasing apart the red herrings and magician's assistants and taking the time (story-organization) to look at all the parallel threads.

I don't think I could do it without the fighting with plot and character that I've been doing (*impossible* novel God won't let me release) for the last 6 years.

God is faithful in all things, and his gifts are good.

Ashley Clark said...

Beth, I absolutely LOVE what you said about our individual callings. That is so true. Some are called to sweet romances, others to edgier literary fiction, and I think it's key we don't frown upon other people's callings just because they differ from our own. It's also oh-so-important that we embrace our own unique calling in Christ to dwell where He wants us to be. Thanks for sharing your wisdom! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Cindy, thanks for sharing! We are so happy you have become part of the Writer's Alley community! :) And I'm glad you to hear you feel you're learning a lot. I always feel like I learn from the other gals here too. Isn't it neat to see the progression of Christian fiction and the different kinds of books that are accepted by publishers now? Makes me excited about what Christian fiction might look like in another 40 years! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Love that, Linds! And thanks for your kind words! :)

Jen, I feel the same way! Isn't it incredible to think of the power of a fictional "friend"? Those books shaped my perspective of relationships and friendships in a big way as a teen, and they sparked that same desire for Christian fiction that they sparked in you. I don't know if I'd be writing this blog if it weren't for Christy. Sarah is also a BIG fan of Robin's. We should start a fan club. ;)

Ashley Clark said...

Cynthia, I know what you mean! I still live a fairly sheltered life, even though I work at a secular university, and sometimes find myself using "Christianisms" that are genuine to me, but may come across cliche to the reader. I think in some instances, that's okay--especially if you're writing to a Christian audience who is going to understand your heart. But for me, I always try to visualize a reader who DOESN'T know much about the church, and imagine how they would react to my terminology. I never want to alienate someone or distract them by my phrasing because I don't want to keep them from those deeper-level concepts of redemption, you know? But that's just my approach. And I DO include a lot of prayers, verses, etc. because I imagine my audience to be primarily Christian or at least open to faith. So I think a lot of it comes down to your audience. There isn't necessarily a right or wrong amount of "religious" type of terminology to use, at least in my opinion, as long as we keep our readers in mind. Thanks for sharing! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Heather, I LOVED when you said this: "You might be barreling along, deep in the plot, and suddenly the MCs start preaching to each other. WHAT?"

SO true! I can't tell you how many times I have read a book and groaned a little when the characters start these kinds of discussions. I think my sensitivity may come from the fact I've been in a church environment my entire life, so I KNOW what would be organically said and what wouldn't, and I don't like the info-dumping quality of this kind of writing.

Thanks for your input! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Jeanne, thank you for always being such an encourager! I think you'll find that asking questions about why your characters made the choices they did will really help you feel more connected with them... that's what always helps me! Sometimes I have a character who I really just don't "like" or "get," but after I question them a bit, I'll find this whole deeper layer that endears me to them. And I think readers appreciate that layering because in real life, that's how people are, you know? Thanks for stopping by today and sharing! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Thank you, Lisa!

Keli, thank you for sharing your perspective as a published author! It's so easy for us who are unpublished to lose sight of the fact that our future readership consists of REAL people. I really appreciate your insight! :)

Ashley Clark said...

Cindy, your comment gave me chills! I love your heart and the ministry you have to be real-life in your stories. I think that is going to resonate with SO many readers and will give you the sensitivity and opportunity to reach readers who are struggling with very real issues that perhaps they don't feel comfortable bringing into a church environment.

Ashley Clark said...

Amy, isn't it so neat how when God begins to teach us something, it often applies to all areas of our life? Thank you for sharing that--such insight we can all learn from! And you're right... I think our stories ought to mirror real life issues people face, because otherwise, how are we going to reach those people? Thanks for stopping by today!

Gabrielle Meyer said...

Ashley, this is a wonderful post and so important for us to remember. I LOVE Psalm 102:18 and I take it a little further, I want my life to be lived so that future generations who have not yet been created may praise the Lord (my grandchildren, great-grans and on and on). As I write my stories I know that my neighbors, high school classmates, my children's teachers, etc. may be reading it one day and I want to make sure that what I write is for all of them and not just people who already believe. Thank you for sharing from your heart.

Ashley Clark said...

Love that, Gabby! So true!

Heather Marsten said...

Ashley, thank you so much for this post. I copied that Scripture for my prayers about my memoir. I came to Christ about ten years ago, but spent forty years in the wilderness - giving up on God when I was eight and not even thinking about God until I was forty-eight. During this time I spent a lot of time in the new age and occult. When I started thinking about God some of the books I was given by a friend were Christian fiction. Many I wanted to drop kick across the room because they did not sound realistic or they seemed way too spiritual for me. I couldn't relate to the people. Then there were others like Francine Rivers and Dee Henderson who had a real quality about the search of faith. Those books held my interest and planted seeds.

I'm praying over my memoir, that it touches peoples' hearts. My story won't fit on the Christian shelves for I detail serious abuse and also time in the occult. God used some of the people in the occult to save my life until I could come to Him.

Now I'm writing the Christian part of my life and afraid it's going to sound preachy. I figure I'll get the dialogue of my counseling with the pastor down and figure out how to present it.

Non-Christian friends have told me that some of my Christian story sounds like "eye-candy" for Christians. That lets me know I haven't set the right tone yet. I have to get more into the questioning and anger I had for God as I searched for Him. So I pray more.

My pastor's wife wants more detail about the abuse and the occult, even though there are some Christians who feel I'm giving too much detail.

I guess I just have to write and pray and hope that God helps me to get the story out the way He wants.

I'm keeping this post as an encouragement. May God abundantly bless you.