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The Inspirational Element–Letting It Happen

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Wow, what a fun weekend of discussing the novel that is considered to be one of Jane Austen’s most “Christian” of novels. Mansfield Park—really most of JA’s novels—exemplify the art of writing fiction from a Christian worldview. In MP, we have the most moral, most humble of heroines, and, as in Sense & Sensibility, a hero who has chosen to become a minister. While it was much more of a step outside of the norm, and therefore a more striking choice for Edward as the oldest son and heir, in MP we see Edmund eventually choose his ministry over the flattering attentions of a worldly, beautiful woman. (And for those of you interested in pursuing this topic further, here’s a discussion question: is Edmund the first hero in a romance novel to unsuccessfully try “evangelism dating”?)

One of the reasons Jane Austen’s novels are not typically considered to be “Christian Fiction” is that there is no obvious agenda, no obvious spiritual journey/lesson learned. But we cannot escape the fact that, for the most part, her main characters (i.e., the heroes and heroines) have a Christian lifestyle. In several of her books, MP especially, the characters discuss religion as being an important choice and part of their lives. But the reason why her novels have such a broad appeal to the general reading market is because she wasn’t writing with a spiritual message in mind. She wasn’t trying to evangelize anyone. She was just writing romance novels. Romance novels in which her characters, like she, were church-going, moral people. She just let it happen.

I’ve heard from a few people who are struggling with the inspirational element of their stories. While I will answer as many questions as I can from my experience, I’m really hoping that y’all will add your comments, experience, and advice here, too.

Amy Jane wrote:

I’m beginning to think my current story cannot be adequately told without the spiritual element. There is so much hope-in-the-face-of, and good-decisions-when-it’s-hard, I’m having trouble just “letting it happen.” My discussion of music the other day woke me to it further, when I realized that the majority of songs (in the soundtrack I’ve complied in the last year) were the “Praise You in the Storm” type. . . . It’s intimidating to jump off that cliff that says “this is now ‘inspirational.'”

When I started writing more than twenty years ago, I didn’t set out to write “Christian” or “Inspirational” stories. And even though I’m about to be published in the Christian Fiction market, the irony is that I still don’t consciously think about writing an “Inspirational” novel when I sit down to write. Because my faith is so ingrained in who I am as a person, it naturally follows that it’s a big part of my characters’ lives, which puts me squarely under the Christian Fiction umbrella.

I don’t sit down and figure out what the spiritual theme of my book is going to be—what lesson the characters need to learn. I just start writing a romance novel. Since my characters always come to me first, and since my characters are the driving force of the novel, the spirituality is always there, even if it’s very subtly under the surface. But by the time I arrive at the climax at the end of the novel, the character must make some kind of realization or decision spiritually for the story to come to a happy conclusion . . . and it’s usually something I’m dealing with in my own life at the time, whether it’s forgiveness or trust or letting something go.

Many, many years ago, I tried writing secular romance novels. After all, if Julie Garwood and Jude Deveraux could write steamy romances where the heroines still prayed and believed in God, I could too, right? But when it would come to the point of writing the sensual scenes, I couldn’t do it—and not just because I’m not married and have never experienced it for myself. I couldn’t do it because it wasn’t the right thing for me to do. It wasn’t the direction my writing was supposed to go.

I finally came to understand that the first part of just letting our fiction happen—whether inspirational or not—is letting go. We have to let go of all of our inhibitions about what we’ve been told is “good” or “bad” storytelling. I’m not talking about throwing away the rules, just all of the myths about how to tell stories. We have to let go of everything we’ve been told about what sells and what doesn’t. Yes, it’s good to know the market and to be aware of who’s publishing what, but if we’re ever to find our true voices, if we’re going to tell the best story possible, we cannot necessarily write “to the market”; sometimes we just have to write. And we have to let go of the stereotype of what inspirational fiction is that has so permeated the writing culture, and just allow ourselves to be free to write our stories with—or without—that Christian worldview. We have to let go of the limitation of defining what we write as “inspirational” or “non-inspirational” (or Christian/secular) and just write.

One of the things I always have to do whenever I start a revision is to increase the inspirational element of the story. Because I don’t start out with the spiritual theme in mind, I sometimes don’t even realize what it is until it starts appearing on the page toward the end of the novel. Once I know what it is and how it resolves itself, in the revision process, I can see areas where I can drop in a thought, a prayer, a remembered passage of scripture (usually paraphrased, not quoted) that will make this spiritual journey the character makes realistic instead of something that just happens, even though it doesn’t usually happen that way in real life. In real life, sometimes we do have epiphanies. Why? Because we’re open to Letting It Happen.

How do you Let It Happen? Does the inspirational element of your stories come easily to you? Do you struggle with it—do you have to almost force it to happen? Do you start out knowing what the spiritual theme of your story is before you start writing? Do you struggle when writing with wondering exactly where your story will fit in the publishing world—where you’ll submit it—when you’re finished with it?

Tomorrow, award-winning author Shelley Adina will be our guest blogger, and I know you’re going to be blessed by her words!

10 Comments
  1. Tuesday, January 29, 2008 11:29 am

    One of the things I always have to do whenever I start a revision is to increase the inspirational element of the story. Because I don’t start out with the spiritual theme in mind, I sometimes don’t even realize what it is until it starts appearing on the page toward the end of the novel.

    I needed to hear that. Because in my last story, the more I wrote, the more I saw the inspirational creeping in and decided that perhaps I truly didn’t have a clue. I desire to romance that reflects my faith but don’t always have a theme or message in mind when I start, and thus didn’t think I could write inspirational.

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  2. Tuesday, January 29, 2008 11:41 am

    Kaye,

    I didn’t struggle with where my historical WIP, Kindred might fit in the market, initially. I was fairly certain I would try to find a home for it with a CBA publisher. But the book grew too long, and I split it at about the 2/3 point in the originally conceived plot. It’s still too long, but at least I now have a prayer of editing it down to a more acceptable length.

    The greatest impact this cut had was on the spiritual arc of the main characters. I had originally seen my male MC, Ian, reaching the point where things have gang sae agley that he finally gives up, and puts his life in God’s hands. Circumstances still gang agley for quite some time after that point, but he’s no longer making them worse by trying in his own fleshly wisdom to make them better.

    The book now ends far short of that point, so when I begin editing next week (I took January away from the novel, the cooling off period), one of my main concerns will be to strengthen the spiritual arc. If there is one. Oh boy.

    No, I’m sure there is. But what if it’s a downward arc? What if it ends with the MC making a life-altering choice in a moment of spiritual and emotional crisis? A choice that I expect the reader will be not at all pleased about. Does that _work_ in the first book of a series? Is it a reasonable hook for the sequel?

    As for the spiritual thread… I’m hopeful the frayed ends of it will leap out at me next week when I print off the manuscript and do an initial read through, and I can snatch them and tie them up prettily.

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  3. Tuesday, January 29, 2008 12:07 pm

    I’m glad you could use the “just let it happen” phrase, but the funny thing to me is that I meant it in the opposite way:

    I don’t (didn’t?) feel the characters could just “happen” to keep making the (hard) right decisions without some serious motivation.

    (For the record, I’m not really into the “deeply flawed” hero/ine who has to keep making stupid decisions to “prove” s/he’s human.)

    Don’t know where other readers here stand on that, but characters who learn less/slower than the reader have always made me nuts!

    I’m more into traditional heroism where the fatal flaw isn’t stupidity or the inability to learn ;op

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  4. Tuesday, January 29, 2008 2:01 pm

    I think in a first book something like that does work. Michael Phillips has done it multiple times with great success. It gives the reader a good solid reason to come back for the next one because you have to know how he gets out of the mess he got himself into.

    I don’t begin writing with a clear spiritual theme in mind. It just happens. If I try to start out with the spiritual theme and build a story from there, it seems false and forced and that’s not good. The over-arching theme in the Epic came naturally out the circumstances the characters find themselves in. War is looming on the horizon at the beginning, and it just goes downhill from there.

    So I’m going with the angle of struggling to find one’s place in a society torn apart by war, and how God could possibly have a plan that can survive so much heartache and death.

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  5. Wednesday, January 30, 2008 12:29 pm

    But the reason why her novels have such a broad appeal to the general reading market is because she wasn’t writing with a spiritual message in mind. She wasn’t trying to evangelize anyone. She was just writing romance novels. Romance novels in which her characters, like she, were church-going, moral people. She just let it happen.

    ^ That is just genius. 🙂 Very well-said.

    I meant to comment in your earlier post about the classics…the book that comes to mind is Jane Eyre. I dove back into that one after becoming mildly *cough, cough* obsessed with the new miniseries last year (long live Toby Stephens…but I digress…). I love the redemptive thread woven through that book…though admittedly it could be argued that it is a bit “preachier” I guess you’d say than Austen…especially the last fourth or so with St. John Rivers…

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  6. Wednesday, January 30, 2008 3:12 pm

    Except St. John was sort of overkill, too.

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  7. Wednesday, January 30, 2008 3:49 pm

    What I find most interesting/ironic about the comparisons between JA’s books and Jane Eyre is that Charlotte Bronte wrote JE as a reaction to everything she didn’t like in Jane Austen’s novels: “[Jane Austen] ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him with nothing profound. The passions are perfectly unknown to her: she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy sisterhood … What sees keenly, speaks aptly, moves flexibly, it suits her to study: but what throbs fast and full, though hidden, what the blood rushes through, what is the unseen seat of life and the sentient target of death–this Miss Austen ignores.”

    Both Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte were unmarried daughters of clergymen. So it’s very interesting to me that while Charlotte Bronte included much more sensuality in her novel, she also included a lot more “preaching.” Makes me wonder if she was trying to counterbalance one with the other . . . ?

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  8. Wednesday, January 30, 2008 4:02 pm

    Yeah, St. John was rather overdone.

    Great quote, Kaye, I’d never read that before. And interesting point about Bronte possibly trying to balance the sensuality in her novel with the more preaching.

    Let me see (this is a stretch, I’m actually trying to THINK…lol)…since Jane rejects St. John, that could be Bronte’s repudiation (is that a word? lol) of religious fervor taken to excess. Perhaps by combining Jane’s faith and with her passion for life/Rochester, Bronte was trying to illustrate that great faith could co-exist with great passion?

    I think I’m starting to ramble… 🙂

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  9. Wednesday, February 6, 2008 10:17 am

    I’m late getting back here, but I’ve always wanted to discuss JE with believers. (I’ve never gotten to discusses it anywhere).

    Because of my own life I’ve always wanted to hear a discussion of the two men in terms of obligation/expectation vs. natural bent.

    I’ve found a small theme on my blog is that “natural bent” while held in scorn by some (Brocklehurst with the girl’s curly hair is a great caricatures of this), it is not unreasonable to imagine God designed our personalities to be part of our assignments.

    I’ve hear so many sermons about “God’s sense of humor” in pulling Paul “a Jew of the Jews” out of his own culture and plopping him into the Gentile world.

    But Paul, with his decidedly cerebral approach was perfectly prepared to go to those thinking gentiles.

    Anyway, rambling and OT, maybe, but when my brain gets full it spills over wherever I see something vaguely applicable.

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  10. Wednesday, April 17, 2013 4:40 pm

    Have you ever thought about creating an ebook or guest authoring on other sites?
    I have a blog centered on the same topics you discuss and would love
    to have you share some stories/information. I know my audience
    would appreciate your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free
    to shoot me an e mail.

    Like

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