If you are a writer looking for encouragement and help with your writing, you are in the right place. For my newsletter this month, I asked fellow writers about how they handle a big challenge like a novel for NaNoWriMo.
How do you handle such a challenge?
Those who signed up for NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—will be approximately half way through their writing project now, if all goes well. I thought it was a good time to pose this question to fellow writers how they tackle a big project such as a novel for this challenge:
Do you write an outline first, and write from that? Or are you a pantser? One who figures things out along the way, seeing what the characters do and where they take you?
These are their answers.
Carol Elaine Harrison replied that she has “a brief outline with the timeline for the book and some things that need to be included, but nothing too detailed.”
“I’ve taken part twice,” writes Donna Mann, “and each time I’ve had an outline of action-consequence identifying (in real time) resulting emotion.”
“I’ve written probably 6-8 novels during assorted NaNo years,” says Valerie Comer. She said that she writes them the same as any other book she works on by doing as much work in advance on setting, character and theme. Then she jumps in and writes. She’s written “about 55 books this way, 45 of them published.”
Suzuko Martha Shigemitsu replied, “When I signed up for NaNoWriMo, I used it as an opportunity to expand my already existing plot or idea and worked from there. I was able to complete two novels doing this. I even used it as an opportunity to write a novel in a foreign language (Japanese). It was a good experience.”
Not everyone who joins in the November challenge writes a novel. Blog posts, memoir and short stories are possibilities.
Lynne Collier responded that she wrote the bulk of her memoir for NaNo last year. She wrote creative nonfiction. “It’s entirely up to writers if they want to do something different. The goal is 50,000 words of anything. This year I’m writing four shorter stories instead of one big one. Part of a series. She mentioned that rough drafts for blog posts are another option. You’ll be called a NaNoRebel.”
Lynne added: “I’ve tried both approaches. I’ve found I need my skeletal plot down and a rough idea of character personalities and the main characters’ names. I don’t worry about details much and find I can write more fluidly that way. I revise in January-February.”
This year I decided to take the plunge and write a middle grade novel and perhaps another short story. I’ll declare it here: I’m a pantser. I will be figuring things out along the way.
I’ve tried a novel and a poetry challenge. The idea of NaNoWriMo is to make time for creativity and to carve out time to write.
******* Carolyn is a writer, editor, writing instructor. and storyteller from Kitchener, Ontario, with publication credits in articles, op-eds, devotionals, poetry. She is a member of the Editors’ Association of Canada, The Word Guild, The Baden Storytellers’ Guild, the Energetics Toastmasters, Tower Poetry Society, and a Friend of CANSCAIP. She blogs at storygal.ca
Thanks for checking out this series! If this is the first blog you’re reading on ‘Writing Speculative Fiction as a Christian’ then please see my intro on post #1 for context on the reason I’ve put this series together.
We’ve just about covered every topic by now, but there are a couple of subjects that Christian writers tend to struggle with most frequently when writing speculative fiction, and I’ve saved them both for last.
What about magic?
Christians who are also fans of fantasy tend to fall into two categories when it comes to the use of magic in stories, there are those who see no problem whatsoever, and those who panic at the first sign of anything feeling even remotely occult. Very few find themselves in a balanced place in between. I myself lean very heavily toward panic, and that’s why my advice on this subject is going to be more on the play-it-safe side and perhaps not as balanced as it should be. Keep that in mind and take everything with a grain of salt. I’m coming from a position of greater caution, but I also recognize the importance of proper balance.
The tension between the cautious and the carefree exploded with the rising popularity of the Harry Potter books. It has settled a lot since then but hasn’t entirely gone away, and the simultaneous re-popularization of the Lord of the Rings franchise raised a fair question that we don’t all know how to answer…
Harry Potter is a wizard. Gandalf is a wizard. What’s the difference?
Most Christians on the cautious side (or even the balanced side) will say that the difference is between magic as a make-believe power (Gandalf) and magic as a real-world occult power such as witchcraft (Harry Potter). Gandalf’s powers are endowed to him as a natural result of his being since he is actually a Maya in disguise, a privilege not everyone can access. Harry’s powers are learned through lessons and texts on witchcraft, something anyone can actually do.
There is a defense that can be used, a strategic approach to implying “magic” into your story, even in a real-world context, while getting the panicking Christians off your back, and that’s to avoid direct references to actual occult research. A lot of the Christian outcry over Harry Potter came from the assumption that what was being taught in the books was actual witchcraft.
Having not read the books myself, I cannot give an educated confirmation on that one way or another. I can say that as far as the films I did not see much that set off my own personal alarms (apart from one scene on divination in one of the films). The only question left in my mind as far as the material in the films is the words (or incantations) spoken by characters in order to perform spells. I’ve avoided learning any actual spells myself, so again, I can’t confirm if the spells spoken in Harry Potter are real or made-up incantations.
Which brings us to the specific subject of spoken words. As far as I am aware, there is nothing wrong with making up your own words and having characters speak them out, if you’re using a fictional language made up for your story. The only remaining issue is that some members of your audience may still be uncomfortable. I myself get uncomfortable if I don’t know what language is being spoken or what a character is saying. In Chronomancer, my counter to this issue was to include an appendix at the end that includes language origins and meanings for every fictional word in the book. That way, if a reader was uncomfortable with not knowing what a character had said, they could look it up in the appendix.
Keep in mind that heading to the end for an appendix isn’t an option in films or television, and that some members of your audience may still be uncomfortable with a character chanting something in a foreign language, even if it’s a made-up language, because made-up languages are not always immediately apparent. It’s safe to say though that any incantation-like chants that sound Latin will raise red flags.
Back to the primary subject though – is it okay to have magic in your story if you’re a Christian writer? I would say yes with an Asterix. As long as the type of magic you’re using is purely fantasy-based in nature, and not based on anything resembling witchcraft or other occult powers, then you’re good to go. A big question that arises, and that you’ll have to address for the sake of your Christian readers, is what is the source of the power?
Again, Gandalf was essentially “born” with his power because of the kind of being that he is. The same could be said of elves and other fantasy races. In Chronomancer it is mentioned (or implied?) that magic ability was something bestowed on a few select creatures and individuals in the early days of that world for the purpose of helping to shape it, and that inborn power has been passed on to even previously non-magical races like humans through cross-breeding.
It gets trickier when you make magic into something that can be taught or given to individuals who don’t already have it inborn, because that’s where it gets dangerously close to sorcery. My recommendation would be something like suggesting that magic can be contained in substances like potions, and that characters can gain the potential for it that way, rather than it being something that can be gained purely through study.
It gets especially tricky if your story is set in the real world. In fact, to avoid confusion I would avoid using the term “magic” at all if your story is set in the real world, unless you plan on specifically taking the time to show or explain the distinction between the power being used in your story and real-world witchcraft. Otherwise, I suspect many Christians would start to feel uncomfortable with the content.
What about references to various mythologies?
It’s common for writers of both science fiction and fantasy to make references to old-world mythological figures, particularly from Greco-Roman and Norse mythologies, in order to add meaning to something using names that most educated audience members are familiar with. For example, if I call something “The Eye of the Basilisk” people would generally know that it’s a reference to death, and if I talk about rising like a Phoenix then people generally know that it’s a reference of new life coming out of death.
Where some Christian writers and audiences draw the line though is references to entities which in those mythologies were worshipped as gods. We are told in scripture to not even have such names on our lips (a figure of speech, since the scripture itself mentions many of these entities by name, but the clear implication is that we should not be praising or celebrating these things).
What are referred to as “gods” in these mythologies are what Christians would refer to as idols, and sometimes we would leave it at that and say that these are purely fictional things not even worth talking about. Paul says as much, in part, (1 Corinthians 8:4-6) but he goes a bit deeper (10:19-20) to explain that these things are representations inspired by demons, and that these idols are the demons’ way of being worshipped. This is why God is against it.
There are ways around this issue. If you’re writing fantasy then your own world may have its own completely different set of entities with different levels of power. I think this is okay as long as the entities are not referred to as gods or worshipped as such.
This was Tolkien’s approach when it came to Middle-earth. (Apparently not in his earlier works, because when Christopher Tolkien published them more or less as-is they used the term “gods” even though those terms had been abandoned in his primary works prior to publication.) I think he understood the issues his widely Christian audience would have with such terms and understood how to work around it. This has been my own approach as well.
There are benefits and drawbacks to such an approach. On the one hand, if the things in your story have nicknames based on your own invented mythos, then you don’t have the benefit of the audience knowing right away the meaning behind these names.
On the other hand, more hardcore fans may delve into side information like appendices (if you include them) and look up the meanings for themselves. Seeing that you have an entire mythos built into your fictional world really reels in deep-thinking audiences who are drawn to that kind of depth of world-building, as long as your story is interesting enough to be worth investing in in the first place.
Also, I would say that not all names and creatures in various mythologies are named after the deities of those cultures. I mentioned the Basilisk and Phoenix creatures earlier, neither of which are worshipped, they are simply creatures that inhabit those worlds. If you’re not sure, then I would recommend looking up info on such creatures online, particularly name meanings and etymology, since that can give you an idea of whether or not a creature’s very name is something to be avoided.
You can also stick with Bible references and use popular names from those stories instead of mythologies. Many Biblical names are well-known and have recognizable meanings when mentioned. The risk on that side is accidentally saying something sacrilegious, so be careful to give respect where it’s due.
This is the final post in this series, at least for now. After this I will have covered every topic that comes to my mind at the moment in terms of the aspects of speculative fiction writing that Christians sometimes wrestle with. I am absolutely open to doing more posts along these lines though if more subjects are brought to my attention. Are there any topics you feel I haven’t covered in this series? Leave a comment and let me know – I may do some additional posts in the future. But for now, thanks for checking out this series, and stay safe out there!
In the last post, we talked about how different sentient species might struggle with sin and evil in ways different from humans, and what that might mean for those species in the long run. Which leads into some other interesting questions when it comes to non-human characters who are still similar to humans in most regards…
What about the afterlife?
For some fantasy worlds I’ve invented an afterlife as well. For the world of Chronomancer I invented quite a few different places a soul could go depending on species and lifestyle. And since they’re fictional, I could also invent different reasons and qualifications for a soul ending up in one place or another.
Since I tend to view my fictional worlds as a lesser reality, with God’s reality above all, the way I look at it is that wherever souls go in my stories (whether darkness, paradise or somewhere in between) they are only there for as long as those worlds endure. Everything eventually returns to God, and on the day of final judgement, every soul will find itself where God deems it should go.
On the science-fiction spectrum, you may be wondering about aliens. Well, in reality it would be debatable whether or not aliens have souls – and it may depend on the species, or they may have something entirely different that we could only possibly understand as being “soul-like.” But as creatures of your own invention, you can decide for yourself whether they have souls or not.
It would be assumed that if God created these creatures in the first place, then He has a purpose and a home in mind for them somewhere in His new heavens and new earth, so whether purely spirit, purely body, or both together, they would likely have some experience of an afterlife upon death.
As for what measures any individual alien would have to meet in order to be on the heavenly side of that, that’ll depend on how that species struggles with evil and sin and how they deal with it. You can read some thoughts on that in the previous post.
What about half-human cross-breeds?
If humans alone are the image bearers of God, and we have relationships and even children with other races, then are we diluting the image of God? It almost seems a weird question to ask in today’s progressive-oriented world. But it’s a question you may be faced with if aliens or orcs suddenly turned out to be real.
One work around for this, if you don’t even want to address the question, is to just make different species to be relationally incompatible. That’s already pheasible with centaurs and mermaids, but it’s less believable with elves whose only obvious genetic difference is pointy ears.
There’s different ways around this depending on what makes you comfortable. With some races that are actually quite similar to humans, like elves and dwarves, you could make the argument that they are all in fact human, and that they simply have different gene pools. Considering the genetic diversity found within mankind, and how long mankind has been around, and how many ethnic groups have likely (and unfortunately) been wiped out long before recorded history, I would not consider it the least bit strange if there were once humans with pointed ears.
If you do want to go the route of them being entirely different species however, yet still genetically compatible, then consider God choosing different sentient races to represent Him in different ways. If humans are made in God’s image, perhaps elves were made to reflect other aspects of God, maybe something related to sound since elves are often musically oriented. Perhaps dwarves reflect something related to strength.
Since we are dealing with fictional races and hypothetical scenarios, I’m reluctant to imply that any specific race is God’s chosen representative of any particular trait by name. I am only trying to present a general idea. If mankind reflects one aspect of God, and other races reflect others, then interracial coupling would not so much dilute God’s image as it would reflect His traits in new ways.
There is a line however when it comes to aliens or races that come off as significantly animalistic, or at least more beast than man. The Bible is against bestiality. Where to draw the line when it comes to fictitious species is up to you as the writer (if you stretch it too far then just be aware that some of your audience may not be comfortable).
Personally, I would advise against any species that are animal from the waist down, or that have animal faces, since those are the two areas most associated with intimacy.
There is still the paramount question of the role of Jesus in the salvation of other sentient species. A question I touched on in the previous post, but that is also a big enough question to deserve a post of its own, and we’ll dive deeper into that topic next time…
‘Salvation for Other Species’ by Benjaimn T. Collier
Thanks for checking out this series! If this is the first blog you’re reading on ‘Writing Speculative Fiction as a Christian’ then please see my intro on post #1 for context on the reason I’ve put this series together.
Last time we discussed what it means to be human in inter-planetary and even inter-worldly contexts. But writing as a Christian there is one subject that inevitably comes up, and that many Christian writers struggle with…
Has Jesus been to these other worlds?
As with many of these questions, the answer is up to you as the writer of the story. In trying to keep in line with my own theology, I have to ask the question of whether or not Jesus would have a reason to. As a child, fascinated with the idea of aliens, I often wondered if the Christian view of salvation was something that was also available to aliens since they’re not human but are presumably sentient beings who (I would assume) also struggle with evil.
In my younger years I assumed that, if necessary, Jesus would have also incarnated as each alien race and died for their sins as well, just so that everyone was included. When I was a little older I concluded instead that aliens need only hear about Jesus as a human, because most aliens have a low opinion of humans, and so the idea of God humbling Himself enough to take on such a weak form would have caught the attention of every other race regardless.
Now that I’m even older, the idea of Jesus manifesting as other sentient races feels less comfortable with my doctrine, but that still leaves me with the problem of how aliens or beings in fantasy realms could avoid damnation if they haven’t directly encountered Jesus, which leads into the next question.
Is sin and evil a multiversal problem?
To write epic stories, it is pretty much a given that your world will contain some form of struggle between forces of good and forces of evil. At least from a fictional standpoint, evil itself is a pretty multiversal problem. What might not be multiversal though, is the problem of sin. That may sound confusing. The two words are practically synonymous, but there is a subtle difference.
Evil is wrong action, and so is sin, but evil is an issue of choice whereas sin is an issue of nature. Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, not good and sin, but that act of disobedience was sin, and through that, sin entered the world and became a part of mankind.
There’s a reason it was in the form of food, because food becomes a part of you. Even more fitting, it was fruit, which typically bears seeds. The seed of sin has been in mankind since that day. It is the inclination toward evil. It’s a vessel for evil. A kind of corruption or disease. Do you get the picture?
The reason I want to get that distinction across is that it’s possible that evil is a multiversal issue without sin being a multiversal issue. The word ‘sin’ means ‘missing the mark.’ It means ‘imperfection.’ The world as a whole fell into sin when those in charge (mankind) allowed sin to enter.
We know it’s possible for angels to fall from grace and commit acts of evil. There is even a passage referring to angels committing sin (2 Peter: 2:4), but no reference to Jesus dying for the sins of angels. Perhaps God has a different solution when it comes to angels, or maybe only the fallen angels sin and so their fate is already sealed. I don’t think the scriptures go into detail on that. We don’t hear about animals ‘sinning’ even though nature itself is in a fallen state.
But other sentient races, though they still face moral dilemmas, may not necessarily have the same problem with sin as humans do. The reason why is also part of what makes us unique compared to other sentient races. As the uniquely assigned bearers of the image of God, there are very specific things at stake when it comes to our living up to our potential or falling from it.
Other races don’t have this problem. The way that evil became a part of us was also very specific in that it set us up for having generational issues and for sin to become a part of the nature of mankind. This means that we as humans struggle with evil differently, in a unique way, compared to how other sentient races might struggle.
Without struggling with sin, can other races still struggle with evil in relatable ways?
Absolutely. In fact I would argue that most writers have already provided plenty of examples of how to do this in your stories. The idea of generational, inherited sin, from a Judeo-Christian perspective is actually a bit complicated to think about. Most writers provide simpler, more universally understandable examples of evil, such as temptation and old, bad habits.
It might feel a bit preschool, but it’s relatable in a way that is understandable to a broader audience. As long as you’re not writing your evil characters as Moustache-Twirling Villains then you’re okay.
There are plenty of other questions that arise for Christian writers when dealing with the idea of other worlds and other sentient races. Next time we’ll go over the questions of afterlives in these other worlds, and inter-species coupling.
All works of fiction ask ‘what if’ questions. ‘If there was a universe where this was going on, what would happen?’ The same is true whether you’re writing science-fiction or fantasy, or some other genre with hypothetical scenarios. And all ‘what if’ stories assume that the ‘what if’ is something not actually happening in reality, but something that arguably could. So as a Christian who wants to write in the fantasy and science-fiction genres, it is not necessarily required that the stories I write would be able to occur within realities that adhere to my theology and general world-view.
But if I’m asking a ‘what if’ question, and the events of the story don’t flow in a way that I think they actually would, given what I believe about the nature of people and spirituality and other things, then am I being authentic to what I think would actually occur in these scenarios?
There’s a lot of freedom when writing speculative fiction. It’s one of the things about it that draws creative thinkers. We get to explore possibilities, even purely hypothetical ones, without having to disregard our core beliefs. So where each writer stands on this line is a matter of personal balance.
Myself, I try for the most part to keep my works of fiction in accordance with how I believe things actually work in a grander, potentially multiversal scenario that is reality, while also acknowledging that, ultimately, God still gets to do whatever He wants. I like the idea that, if these stories turned out to be real, they could fit together with our reality in a cohesive manner without me having to rework my theology, but if I take that approach then I have to make sure that these stories are adhering to my theology in the first place.
There are other Christian writers who feel the same way I do, and take a similar approach, but it is not without its challenges. In this series I’ll try to address some of the tougher issues I run into when trying to write fantasy and science-fiction stories in a way that doesn’t contradict my personal beliefs.
Now, before we dive deep into any of these topics, there is something I need to confess to you guys about myself, and that is that I personally am somewhat up-tight about this stuff. Sensitivity is a spectrum, and on that spectrum I land hard on the side of being cautious rather than flippant. There’s a couple of things that means for this series.
First, you can be sure that the topics I’ve covered, and the way that I’ve covered them, is coming from a place of an abundance of caution, and there are probably few things worth covering that won’t be addressed in this series (though I am open to ideas for new topics if any come to mind). So if you too land somewhere on the cautious side of the spectrum and just want to make sure you have covered everything that needs covering, then this is probably the series for you.
Second, since sensitivity is a spectrum, and I’m on the extreme end of cautious, it is quite likely that some of these topics did not even need addressing, at least for most audiences. So if you find yourself thinking “does that really even matter?” the answer may be no, at least not for you. And a person’s level of sensitivity is neither right nor wrong, it’s just what it is for that person.
Case in point, say it turns out that aliens are real – does mating with an alien count as bestiality? How many people have asked that question or even thought about it? (Personally, I’d say it depends very heavily on the type of alien. But we’ll go over that subject in detail in a future post. And by “in detail” I mean we’ll discuss the social and spiritual ramifications of it, not draw up a diagram.)
I should also point out that I am well aware that even within Christian circles there are many different doctrinal beliefs about some of the things I’m going to talk about, and I do not mean to diminish any of those beliefs by neglecting to address them here. I can only speak on behalf of my own theological stances.
Now on to it
To start off, the existence of a fantasy world itself implies a universe other than our own (a multiverse) so the first question to address is…
Why would God bother to make a multiverse in the first place?
Considering how creative God is, and how many entire universes have been imagined by some of our best fiction writers alone, it seems a bit limiting to assume that God spent the entirety of His creative juices on just one universe. But that’s not to say that He didn’t still make just one. It’s possible He had countless other ideas and considered them all not worth it. The traditional way of thinking about it, though, is that as God’s children and image-bearers, anything not directly affecting us or under our rule would be unnecessary and therefore must not exist.
I’ll address some of that later, but for now, I would first point out the stars and planets across all of the galaxies in our own universe that we do not have any kind of rulership over and that do not directly affect us (to the best of my knowledge). Also, since we are dealing with hypothetical universes, how do we know that we were not originally destined to rule over these other universes as well before we fell from grace? Perhaps these other universes are still there waiting for us.
But as Rick Warren pointed out in The Purpose-Driven Life – it’s not all about us. Everything exists for God’s pleasure. If it pleases God for something to exist, He will bring it into being.
Who created these worlds?
The easy answer in most cases is God. This answer gets a bit tricky though in fantasy stories where you wish to build a mythos with god-like entities that represent God. This has certainly been done, by very well-known Christian writers, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien in particular, with no apparent issues of conscience. I could stop right there, but I press the matter a bit more just because of my own personal level of sensitivity.
The problem is, whenever you have a fictional character representing God, especially in a creator role, you run the risk of said character becoming an idol, even if only a fictional one. And my problem with saying that a character is God is, what if said character does not accurately portray the way that God works, or what His priorities are? Then I’m misrepresenting God.
The way that I personally have chosen to handle this is, whenever a story of mine has a creation mythos, mentioning certain entities by name, I treat them as spiritual entities endowed with the capacity to create (or recreate using already existing materials, in some cases). But they are individual characters that, if real, are themselves created by God. They are neither small ‘g’ gods, nor are they aspects of God, but they are very powerful entities endowed with the ability to create.
A possible protest to this is the argument that only God can create, but hasn’t God endowed mankind with the ability to create as well? We make babies. That is something we do using materials that already exist. Writers create, only in the sense that we are imagining these worlds and putting them on paper. I cannot call them into physical existence. Relatively speaking, who’s to say that the worlds created by these entities are not themselves purely imaginary? And that by reading these books you are not simply looking into the mind of one of one of these entities? We cannot call into existence something that does not exist, only God can do that, but He has endowed us with the ability to make things using materials He has provided us.
In my efforts to avoid any of my fictional entities being viewed as idols, I’ve taken great care to make sure that there are no examples of them being worshipped. People may talk about them. People may even be grateful for something the entity has done, but there are no references of worship. At the very most, depending on how much the book talks about them, these entities may be made to reflect God in terms of character and priorities, to the best of my ability to know how to accurately reflect Him, but I remember that my own perceptions are flawed and that, ultimately, the same could be said of many fictional characters.
Jesus Himself told certain parables where a character was only reflective of certain aspects of God, but not reflective as a whole. Even if a character of mine has a degree of symbolic meaning, I still need to allow them the room to be individuals. I also view all of these beings as answerable to God and therefore surrendered to him (unless they are villainous).
The premise of a multiverse raises many other questions, particularly regarding mankind’s place amidst such a vast plethora of possibilities. I’ll address some more of these topics and how I’ve chosen to handle them in the next post…