As I was telling you earlier, I’ve written three novels. (I actually got about halfway through a fourth, and then it completely escaped me. Plus I was telling it from the point of view of a 20-something guy, which I am not nor have ever been, and for various reasons I began seriously doubting my ability to write in such a voice.) The youthful dreadful one, the one that got published, and (the perhaps ironically named) Favored One, the one I can’t decide whether to keep hurling at agents or to self-publish.
Stephen King says writing is like an paleontological dig, and you just tell the story that’s already there (like an paleontologist uncovers the fossils already there). I take this to mean you write with the style that you have (not that it can’t and shouldn’t be honed) and the story that comes to you. He also talks about writing for a particular person, but I don’t seem to remember him saying a whole lot about otherwise knowing your audience. In my reading, however, almost all other writing-advice-givers admonish writers to know their audience.
This is a problem for me. Even with Trees in the Pavement, though I could place it at an upper-elementary-school reading level, is hard for me to classify as strictly a children’s book. This is not because I feel any shame in having written a children’s book–children’s literature is actually my favourite–but it is because a) people who don’t know children’s literature often assume “picture book” when I say I’ve written a children’s book (a type of book I also love, but that is not what Trees is) and because b) most of my adult friends have read it and really like it–even the adult friends who don’t normally read children’s literature.
Turns out I also have genre-boundary issues. (I said genre, by the way. In case you weren’t paying attention.) I subscribe to a few different Writer’s Digest emails, and once they made available a handy little download of fiction genre types and descriptions. It was an excerpt from theBeginning Writer’s Answer Book and it listed and described such genres as Action/Adventure, Historical Fiction, Gothic, Fantasy, Mystery, and so on. In case that wasn’t good enough, they also included a few sub-genres, like Historical Romance (complete with sub-sub-genres) and Romantic Comedy and Romantic Suspense.
I read with interest the ones I thought might be closest to whatever genre Favored One is–kind of the way you read through your results when you take a Facebook quiz which purports to tell you which Downton Abbey character you are. (I’m Robert Crawley, the Earl of Grantham, in case you were wondering. With Lady Sybill as a close second.) But, just as I always had inner caveats to my multiple choice quiz answers in school, I couldn’t quite seem to find a genre that I felt Favoured One really fit.
Here is why I might be confused (and maybe some agents are, too):
Back in London–I don’t know, maybe halfway through my time there (though I didn’t know it was halfway), I started experimenting with lectio divina. I was going through a mystical phase, remember? Somebody there once (or maybe more than once) led us through an exercise where you put yourself into the Bible story being read, as one of the characters, and tried to experience the passage for yourself in your head. I kind of liked this–as a kid I was always acting out songs and stories and story-songs–so I began to do this on occasion by myself, and to write the experiences down like short stories. (Maybe one of these days I’ll transcribe a few of them here as blogposts.) After some time of doing this, I began to feel like I wanted to do this “as” Mary, the mother of Jesus. But I didn’t just want to pick an anecdote she was in. I wanted to do the whole story.
I guess I was exploring the idea of Mary as “God-bearer,” and then thinking about how Christians are supposed to be essentially possessed by the Spirit of God (I’m sorry that this is often the opposite of what it looks like), and so, though hoping to avoid any sort of self-aggrandisement or blasphemy, I was kind of mulling around the idea of what it means to be a God-bearer–and more particularly a woman God-bearer. This idea batted around my head for a long time, and then just before I left London, I started the process. By this time I had been given a copy of the Complete Jewish Bible, with it’s complete Hebrew-to-English transliterations of the names, and so I began writing as Miryam.
The upshot is a story that just doesn’t seem to fit anywhere. It’s not biographical fiction, because I’m not particularly bothered about trying to discern who the real Miryam was. I don’t think that’s remotely possible. This isn’t an attempt to imagine how the real Miryam would have acted and reacted in the Biblical accounts, but more an attempt to imagine how I would have, had I been Miryam, and had all those things in the New Testament happened the way the Gospel writers say they did. (Was it tricky “harmonising” the Gospels for this project? Yes. But it was possible.)
It’s not a romance novel, because although there is some subtle romance between Miryam and Yosef, he’s not around for most of the story. It’s sort of women’s fiction I think, because it’s about one, and because Jesus’ female disciples blasted through a whole lot of stereotypes and cultural mores to follow Him around, but that was the first century and this is the twenty-first, and I’m not sure people who snatch up women’s fiction would necessarily put it in that category. Because enough people don’t actually believe the stories literally, it could be fantasy because of the miraculous, or it could be paranormal because there are demons as well as a Spirit impregnating a teenager . . . It could be multicultural like Trees because it takes place in a country where I’m not, in a language I don’t know, among a people group I’m not a part of.
In my opinion, the closest genre it comes to fitting is that of historical fiction, but . . . I just listed a bunch of reasons many people wouldn’t consider it historical. The people who would are conservative Christians, but I’m struggling with that one. I guess I just don’t really believe there should be “Christian” art. I know I’m probably shooting myself in the foot and losing all opportunity to ever be published again, but I guess I just wish there was no specifically Christian fiction publishing industry (I concede it may be different for strictly devotional material), or Christian music industry (same concession goes for music specifically designed to be sung in worship), or Christian movie industry. I wish there were just Christian writers and musicians and movie-makers and artists who made good enough art that people would take notice, even if they didn’t agree with it.
I’m not saying my art’s that good. I wish it were, but I’m not delusional. At least not about that. Meanwhile I think I just shut down my Christian publishing opportunities, and it’s pretty tough to try to sell a book to an agent when you can’t even put a genre to it. I completely resonate with Satis’ and the Bitchy Bride’s comments on this post, and maybe I should just taste my own medicine and keep working to write a good enough piece of literature that people outside of my subculture would want to read it. Or maybe I should do what the Blue Like Jazz guys did, knowing that there isn’t–and may never be–a mainstream market for what we’re into, but that at the same time the “Christian industry” isn’t what we’re into, either. Maybe the first few attempts will be a little rough around the edges, but I may just go the self-publishing route one of these days after all. Either that, or someday the future generations can dig through the boxes, both literal and metaphoric, and maybe they’ll see something in there that they like.