March 20, 2011

WRITING ADVICE: Mike Duran #6 – How Hard Should We Make Our Readers Work?

I have never seen Mike Duran. We “met” online a couple years ago because of a little…altercation I caused by saying something less-than-nice about Christian speculative fiction on his blog. Mike, being both a spec-fic writer and editor, won me closer to his side with gentle and wise words. Since then I’ve found that Mike has lots of gentle and wise words. I’m looking at how some of them have had an impact on my own writing in these WRITING ADVICE posts. (Quotes are used with his permission.) He also participates in “ONE OF WRITER'S DIGEST 101 MOST VALUABLE WEBSITES FOR WRITERS, 2008 & 2010”, NOVEL JOURNEY at

The last thing I ever wanted to do was write a story in a disposable world – one that I created simply to “tell an entertaining tale”. I’ll admit that I have used places I probably will never go back to again but my intent was to return to the worlds I’ve invented – skipgate world (“Skipping School”); Enstad’s Planet (“Test” and “Teaching Women To Fly”); Alzheimer’s cure (“A Pig Tale”); Space Station Courage (“Mystery on SS Courage”); the shared world of the AETHER AGE (“Looking Down on Athena”); as well as River; Wheet; HEIRS OF THE SHATTERED SPHERES; Martian Holiday and now the End of The Petroleum Age…

I’ve always wanted to have a place in which I could not only tell stories, but a place that had a history and that the history might say something about humanity as well as my own beliefs. You could probably summarize that concept by saying that the setting is the character as well. We all know what that means: literary fiction.

According to many people, calling your work literary fiction is as good as propping a sign next to it that says, “unreadable”. My own opinion of literary fiction fell into line with that notion: “Literary fiction is about powerless people living their lives in excruciating detail. The main character is the author in thin disguise making educated, satirical, wise, obscure or erudite commentary in a way that no real person in that life could possibly be able to duplicate…”

Mike Duran has something else to say about literary fiction: “…the drive to be published can tempt us to short-cut literary depth in exchange for formulaic ‘entertainments.’… (Which could explain why there are far less readers than movie-goers and theaters outnumber bookstores — we weren’t made to eat our Lima beans.) Good writing need not be a chore to read. Still, at some point, the maturing adult must learn to use her literary molars.” (

Oddly enough, I’ve come to agree with him. HOWEVER, a problem arises when the people who read your work are looking for rock candy and you’re offering filet mignon. I experienced this with “Teaching Women To Fly”, a short story that finally found both appreciation and understanding from Bruce Bethke. Prior to him buying it for STUPEFYING STORIES, I’d had commentators say things like, “You should end the story” and “She should reach the starship and fly off so she can help her family”.

Only two of some twenty or more people who read it got what I was trying to say. I don’t think that’s because I wasn’t saying it clearly – it’s just that those people didn’t want to work very hard to parse the story.

Bruce got the story.

My dad also got the story, which really touched my heart! My message was that even if you’re living on an alien world, flying starships and talking to aliens, your life can still be miserable and feel trapped in your present. Outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ, anyone’s life can feel that way. Even people who live with the light of Christ in them feel trapped and miserable sometimes. But without Him, there’s no chance at all of those feelings changing permanently. But some of my first readers didn't really want to THINK. They wanted the "happy ending" entertainment that usually comes with hard science fiction -- which they'd classified my story and writing style as. They'd closed their minds, figuring that that was all I could ever say. That group prides itself on its egalitarian attitude...

Perhaps as Christians, we should dig a bit more deeply into our writing. As Christians, we can learn to use literary fiction to communicate more deeply the state of people outside of a relationship with Christ and just maybe offer a glimpse of Him. Or we can go on schlepping poorly re-written parables and sermons as "science fiction, fantasy and horror". We should choose the former every time and listen to CS Lewis: "What we want is NOT more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects with their Christianity latent." (GOD IN THE DOCK)


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