Is That Dragon Really Necessary?

One problem writers sometimes have is when they toss in a story element— such as a dragon in fantasy fiction— that isn’t really integrated with the rest of the story. It’s just something the writer happens to like in fiction, so he throws it in.

But story elements— whether dragons or robots or foreign spies— can’t just stand around looking genre-specific. They must be a part of the story. A dragon may be part of a hero’s quest— he might have to slay the dragon, or trick the dragon, or get the dragon to fall in love with his pet donkey (Shrek reference.)

Sometimes dragons are more than an obstacle for a hero. Think of the Dragon Jousters series by Mercedes Lackey, or the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik, or the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey and son— in all of these, dragons are central to the story. Without dragons, you couldn’t have these stories. Or, at least, they would be utterly different stories.

By now I’m sure I have some writers saying ‘that blogger wants me to take the dragon out and I won’t! I won’t.’ Well, you don’t have to. You just have to know how the dragon fits in to your story and your story’s world.

In some fantasy novels, facing a dragon can be part of a quest. The reader may go through chapters of the quest without knowing for sure there is a dragon in the book— authors don’t have to mention ‘here be dragons’ when they start a fantasy novel in a fantasy world. Now, if the dragon is in contemporary Green Bay, Wisconsin, I’d want to know why. Or if the dragon is a Packers fan. Or something.

Dragons can be central to some stories, as in the three series I mentioned above. Think of these stories as an endless ‘what if’ game. If they had dragons in the Napoleonic wars, how would the dragons be raised? How would they be trained? How would a nation have enough meat to feed hungry war dragons? And so on. Answering all the dragon-questions is almost like a game between author and reader.

Fictional dragons can come in many sorts. The dragons in the Dragon Jouster series are animals, and so cannot speak. Dragons in the Temeraire and Pern series do speak— the Pern dragons telepathically, the Temeraire dragons verbally. The dragons can have different abilities, be different colors, and be at different intelligence levels.

Christian fiction can have a problem with dragons. I have read that some Christians— both Evangelical and Catholic— look on a dragon as a symbol of evil as in the Biblical book of Revelation. But if that is a restriction on a Christian’s ability to write non-evil dragons, then what about writing about nice goats (as in Heidi?) The Bible does speak of the sin goat and separating the sheep from the goats. As a person who has kept actual sheep and actual goats, yeah, sometimes the goats are more ‘sinful,’ or harder to handle. But sheep can be that way, too. And I’ve never heard yet that the Serpent in the Garden of Eden means that a Christian author can’t write a character whose son has a pet snake. So, even though I am a Christian I feel perfectly free to include nice dragons, goats or snakes in a story.

I love dragons. I love stories with dragons. But if the dragon in your fiction doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the story, you may have to make a choice— either lose the dragon, or change the story so the dragon bit of it fits in better with the rest. You are the author— it’s up to you to decide how that will happen.  Happy dragoning!

The Death Eaters were Right about Purebloods

In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, the bad guys prefer ‘pureblood’ wizarding families to half-blood or Muggle born wizards. And that makes them bad and prejudiced, according to the book’s author. But the plain fact is, the Death Eaters were right. Pureblood wizarding families ARE better.

Wizarding ability is inherited through the genes, and there is no clue in the series that the essential wizarding genes behave differently from other genes. When a wizard marries a ‘witch,’ the offspring can inherit magic from both sides. When he marries a Muggle (non-magical person), the children can only get magic from the one parent.

It is possible for a wizard to be born from Muggle parents, but that is very rare. One may assume, though, that in half-blood marriages between wizard and Muggle, there are a lot of non-Magical children born.

Wizards don’t want to die out. It’s clear that if most or all wizards reject the ‘pureblood’ prejudice and marry Muggles freely, the number of wizard-gifted children born grows smaller and smaller, and the Wizarding world might well shrink.

The prejudice against Muggle-born wizards may have its basis in facts. Do Muggle-born wizards have as many wizarding genes as the average pureblood wizard? Probably not! They are lucky to have any wizarding gift at all! They are a needful addition to the possibly-shrinking wizarding world, but they are more likely to have squib children.

Of course, these days wizards can figure out which genes are connected to wizarding, and figure out who has which genes. A marriage to a Muggle who has some wizarding genes isn’t as bad as one to a Muggle with no wizarding genes. And a pair of pureblood wizards might have very different wizarding genes and not be able to pass on the traits well, while a different pair might be destined to produce strongly gifted children.

They Won’t Tell You This About YA Fiction

YA fiction, or Young Adult fiction, is a weird category. First, the name. Not for adults, but for children. In fact, since the typical YA protagonist is 16, the category is clearly for kids younger than 16. (Kids tend to think they are more mature than their years. Kids that read usually actual are.) So YA is aimed at kids in the 12-14 year age group.

Also, for most fiction you have to ‘sell’ the book to the actual readers. In YA, there are other people you have to ‘sell’ it to.

For mainstream YA, you have to ‘sell’ the books to public school teachers and school librarians. Your book must have content that they approve of. These days, the YA gatekeepers talk a lot about ‘diversity’ and want gay and ‘transgendered’ characters, but that’s not the most important thing. Number one is that you must promote a positive attitude towards (public) school, learning, reading and the like. No books with lead characters who are suspicious of schools and literacy!

For Christian YA— Evangelical, Catholic or other— your job is to ‘sell’ the book not to the kids, but to parents and grandparents. Many of a Christian YA books’ sales come from parents and grandparents giving gifts. Some of these books will never get read by the actual child who receives it!

For this reason, Christian YA books must not only be Christian-wholesome, they must be perceived as such by parents and grandparents. If the grandparents are old-fashioned about things like minced oaths or about Christian characters dancing, drinking alcohol, or owning a pack of playing cards, those things must be excluded from your book for it to sell well.

But for a YA book to do really well, it must also be thrilling enough to get young readers excited when the book finally gets to them after teacher or parent approval. We can do that, can’t we?

“There is no Such Thing as the One True Way”

In Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar books, the land seems to have a law or motto: ‘There is no such thing as the one true way.’ This is popular enough— I would imagine the typical neopagan reader interprets it as a hit against those hateful and hated Christians— but does it make any sense?

As a general rule, the motto, as it asserts that either there is no such thing as truth, or that it is unbearably rude to stand up for the truth when someone might have a contrary opinion, kills off any hope of scientific advancement or rational discussion.

Imagine the situation when someone who believes in a flat Earth (or Velgarth) meets someone who believes— or has personally observed— the roundness of Earth or Velgarth. Because ‘there is no such thing as the one true way’ neither can enlighten the other without breaking the law.

In our world, there are people who believe that autism is often caused by modern vaccines, and others who believe modern vaccines never cause autism. As a sensible person I believe the ‘cure’ for that is more research, and better reporting of adverse effects of vaccines. But according to the Valdemar rule, both sides of the vaccine issue have to keep silent because ‘there is no such thing as the one true way.’ Or a true answer to a dispute that could be solved with scientific research.

It’s obvious, though, that the Valdemar rule is aimed specifically at religions, or perhaps only at theistic religions. No religious group is allowed to claim that their religion might be true. What effect would that have on religions in the real world? Could a religious group pass on its faith to the next generation if they were banned from talking about truth or reality? Wouldn’t all religions tend to die out under such a law?

And the kingdom of Valdemar makes a lot of use of religions in order to provide social services at low or no cost to the state. In Haven, the capital, the schools not only have the task of educating the children, even poor ones, but they distribute state-provided free food to hungry poor children. A religious order was also used to wall up a woman who wanted a Valdemar Herald punished for killing her son. That story did not mention whether the sisters were to be paid for turning their convent into a jail.

But there is one religion that would be very comfortable with religions without truth. Not any ancient kind of paganism— they also thought their religions had truth on their side— but modern neopaganism.

Having actually been a neopagan and having read a lot of books about it, I know that there were a lot of people who embraced neopaganism and even started neopagan religions or Wiccan traditions who stated openly they didn’t believe it was true. They talked about neopaganism’s aesthetic value instead— in other words, it was a pretty lie. Some early neopagan leaders made claims about having a family tradition of neopaganism or Wicca, and later admitted that wasn’t true. They just said it to get attention and followers, and because others were saying similar things at the time.

How well does this non-true neopaganism work out in real life? Well, they sell ‘magick’ books. But have you ever seen a Wiccan or other neopagan temple being built in your town? They can’t gather enough people together to collect money to create a physical presence anywhere. And if they do manage to create one, will their groups last as long as a local Presbyterian church will last? Do neopagans who don’t believe their religion is actually true have the willingness to work and sacrifice and donate and attend services to make their non-true religion a reality in the world? Why would they care?

“There is no such thing as the one true way” may sound cool and anti-Christian to modern ears, but in the fantasy kingdom of Valdemar, it’s an expression of tyranny. If religions can’t speak about their faith’s claim to truth, and can’t transmit any evidence for that truth to their future generations, religions will die out. And Valdemar seems to depend on being able to use-and-abuse religions for the state’s needs.

Which is probably why the tyrannical law came into being. I would imagine that Valdemar looks the other way when priests or lay person surreptitiously whisper to children and new converts the evidence for their faith. If someone starts preaching it on the street corners— as the early Christians did at Pentecost— they will be punished, if only to keep the religions scared and obedient to the state. But I believe that the government of Valdemar is glad that the majority of their people don’t really believe ‘there is no such thing as the one true way.’

The Great Deception in Christian Fiction

Some people know everything there is about Christian fiction. Sometimes without actually reading a single work of Christian fiction. But they won’t tell you the important thing.

One of my pet peeves is that the term ‘Christian fiction’ is used as if it just naturally excludes Catholic authors— even if the person using the term doesn’t deny that Catholics are Christians.

Which leads me to a hint about the Great Deception: commercial Christian fiction is meant to make readers think that ‘Christian’ means ‘Christians-like-us.’

I once read a book telling how to write for the (evangelical) Christian fiction market. It said that if the church in your book is Grace Baptist Church or Faith Methodist Church, rename it. Make it Grace Church or Faith Community Church. Which made me gleefully think: if I change Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church to just Our Lady of Lourdes Church, no one will suspect we’re Catholic!

There is an incredible amount of diversity among different churches in the Evangelical category. Some baptise infants, others have believer’s baptism which excludes infants. Some teach that ‘once saved, always safe,’ while others teach that you can lose your ‘saved’ status by rejecting Christ and Christianity. Some Evangelicals— those in Lutheran churches— have liturgical worship. Other evangelicals do not. Some Evangelicals believe that the Rapture theory is a Bible-based End Times theory, others do not.

If the (Evangelical) Christian fiction author has to make every (Evangelical) reader feel that the book is about ‘Christians-like-us,’ there are a lot of things that can’t be mentioned. Baptisms, the events of a church service, how Holy Communion is done…. If one is not careful, all that is left of the faith is just a bunch of common Evangelical faith platitudes, in a bland story that tries to offend no one.

The famous best-selling Left Behind series ignored the rules. It was centered around a controversial belief about End Time events— the Rapture theory. I went to many kinds of Evangelical/Protestant churches in my earlier life, but I never went to one that taught the Rapture theory. There are loads of ‘Bible-believing’ Christians who don’t accept the Rapture theory. One might think that the authors of Left Behind would have been cautioned to be less controversial. But they went forward with their series based on End Time events that many Christians don’t believe in— and people read it. Even people who didn’t agree with the End Time theory, but liked the books because of their exciting story.

Now, I know some Christian fiction readers are wedded to the ‘Christians-like-us’ deception. They would not accept as Christian fiction a book with a Lutheran church instead of a ‘Community’ church, or one that differed from their own church’s practice on baptism, or a book that said taboo words like ‘darn’ or ‘heck’ or in which characters played cards or danced.

But most Christians are more grown-up. They know that the Christian world is full of people who do things differently. Since most Christians read more secular fiction than Christian fiction, they are more open towards ‘naughty’ things like characters who dance or drink a beer, but insist on more exciting plots than some Christian publishers accept.

When a Christian author is NOT seeking publication by one of the Christian traditional-publishers, the question becomes, should you tag your book ‘Christian fiction’ if it doesn’t try to be ‘generic Christian?’ Will that offend more potential readers than it attracts?

I don’t know that there is an easy answer to that. SOME readers need the comfort of Christian fiction that is just like the Christian publishers produce. Others are suspicious that ‘Christian fiction’ means fiction that is more bland than the secular fiction they prefer. But on the other hand they may be tired of the anti-Christian stuff allowed in secular fiction now, and long for a Christian fiction that is more to their taste.

The ultimate answer for the Indie writer of Christian faith is to experiment with the Christian tag and with the level of Christian content until you find out what works with your particular fiction and your reader-base.

Why Aliens Attack (part 1)

Why Aliens Attack

A Writer’s Guide to Extraterrestrial Conflict

It’s the theme of movie after movie, of some TV series, and of many science fiction books and short stories. Extraterrestrials come to Earth in their high-tech machines and attack us. Usually, human technology can’t do much to fight back, at least not at first.

People whose ideas tend more toward the peace-and-love movement declare that these stories are just awakening fear and hatred towards probably-nice aliens we haven’t met yet. More cynical types declare that this is the good that comes of those stories— to make us more aware of a possible danger we haven’t encountered yet.

When the first alien Mothership starts destroying major Earth cities, they probably aren’t going to send out a notice to us giving a list of their reasons for attacking us. They may not think we are an advanced enough race to be worth talking to. And, unlike movie aliens, they may not have learned Earth languages by listening to a few moments of Earth radio broadcasts. There may be no communication possible for months or years.

One thing we can know is that the trip from the alien homeworld to our Earth required a lot of effort, as well as technology we ourselves don’t possess yet. Because of that effort, we know our alien soon-to-be overlords have a reason or set of reasons in mind when they came here. They may not share that reason with us. But for the alien characters in a work of fiction to be credible, they must have a reason. Or a series of reasons.

In a work of fiction, much will depend on how our aliens are portrayed. In some movies, especially older ones, we don’t get to know the invading aliens except through what their spaceships do. We don’t know any aliens by name or know how they live or what they do for a hobby when they aren’t busy knocking down the Eiffel Tower. The movie ‘Independence Day’ is a lot like that. The aliens are remote and rarely shown, and the one message they have for humans is ‘die.’

That is one fictional choice. Another, more thoughtful choice is to be found in Harry Turtledove’s ‘Worldwar’ series. In that series, an alien race called ‘the Race’ invades Earth right in the middle of World War Two. We get to meet individual aliens, like Atvar the Fleetlord and his subordinates, and various humans, from a couple of minor-league baseball players to a Jewish man about to die in Nazi captivity when the aliens come and liberate the Warsaw ghetto.

Now, the aliens in Worldwar don’t start off with telling the humans why they are invading and why they would be better off surrendering right away. Humans and the Race get to know each other more gradually. But both human and Race characters are portrayed as individuals in a way that the aliens in Independence Day are not. We don’t even know the name of one alien in Independence Day— or if those aliens even have names, or individuality.

Writers may find the concept of an alien attack on Earth to be inspiring. But writers must be aware that this concept has been floating around the science fiction world for decades. If you don’t keep up with current science fiction books and short stories, if you mainly get your sci-fi concepts from movies, or, still worse, from OLD movies, you may be just recycling old sci-fi concepts in a thoughtless way. The solution is to think things through. Why do your aliens attack? What do they want? What do they plan for the surviving humans? And what are the aliens like? Could YOU see yourself as one of your aliens, participating in an attack on Earth? What are you doing it for? How should the puny humans you are attacking see your presence? As liberation? As a working-out of evolution or God’s will? As a chance for advancement to the aliens’ level? It’s up to you, as a writer.

This is the first part of a series on science fiction stories featuring alien attacks, looking at possible reasons for the alien attacks. If you like this article, comment with any questions or suggestions for the series. Sharing the link on social media is also a help.

Bad Novel Ideas for New/Young Christian Authors

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Can you spot the kitten sleeping in this boot?

When you are young and/or new to writing, you may go through a phase where you are not sure what kind of writing ideas to have. Some of the early ideas are sure to be bad ones.

If you are also some sort of Christian, you may feel you need to write ‘Christian fiction,’ whether you have ever read ‘Christian fiction’ or not. One problem with that is that most of us think of Evangelical Christian fiction when we hear the words ‘Christian fiction.’ If you are Catholic or LDS or even a non-evangelical Protestant, Evangelical-style fiction likely won’t be right for you.

The common bad writing ideas will trip writers up no matter their denomination. They are ideas lots of Christian writers have that few Christian readers will buy. Since many naive Christian writers self-publish these novels anyway, you will have much competition for a tiny share of readers.

Retold Bible Stories – Have you ever met someone who was just dying to read the story of King David from his favorite goat’s perspective? Or the life history of Hosea’s wife? Maybe if you are a noted Biblical scholar whose Bible commentaries are traditionally published and well-known, you could do this without boring or offending all potential readers. For the rest of us, we need a better idea.

Allegories – The famous book ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ is a Protestant allegory about the Christian life. I read it when I was a Protestant, and liked it. But that didn’t mean I was raiding the bookstores for more allegories to read! The Narnia series contains allegory, but also has a lot of content that isn’t direct allegory. But even this less-allegorical type isn’t an easy sell to Christian publishers or readers. If your planned story has a Jesus-character in it, like Aslan, perhaps you should think again.

Conflict-free Historicals – Prairie romance and Amish romance are popular escapist forms of Christian fiction. Many Christian readers want to escape from their current woes where they get mocked at work for being a Christian. But Amish and prairie stories have to be realistic enough to show real conflicts. Conflict is the life blood of fiction. Even escapist fiction.

The best thing the would-be Christian novelist can do is read within the genre. Find out what books are selling well, and read them. If you are not Evangelical, look for authors from your own faith background and read their books. If you can’t find any sort of Christian fiction that you like and that inspires you with writing ideas, maybe you should consider secular fiction. There ARE Christians who write for the secular market, like Dean Koontz. That might be what you are called to do.