Screwtape on Fantasy: A Response to Todd Friel

Todd Friel of the ministry called “Wretched” and others have come out against fantasy fiction having any place in the life of a Christian. You can find his video on Youtube, concerning “wizard fiction.”

In response, I wrote my idea of a possible “Screwtape Letter.” I do hope it does no dishonor to C.S. Lewis.

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My dear Wormwood,

I am writing to address your inquiry in your most recent letter, regarding the use of the fantastic in the Patient’s reading habits.

In truth, the subject in and of itself is of little use to Our Father Below, and I expected better even from the likes of you. I must once again indulge the holding of your hand through this matter.

When fiction is the reader’s chosen subject, he ventures into a cinema or into the pages of a book, knowing full well the story’s author is not presenting a documentary or a statement of belief. It is what one might call a neutered lie. All the sinister pleasures of deception have been defanged, because almost all Patients will not take the story as descriptive of reality. Since our goal is to cast illusions and phantoms across the face of real life, attempts to harness fiction to our Father’s cause are severely hampered before we’re even out of the gate.

It is true that a human’s worldview influences their process of artistic creation, and therefore influences those who partake in it. But the medium itself, as a neutered lie, in most cases can only impart a watered-down influence. Even here, however, there can be some meager potential, which I shall explain in a moment.

The human art of pretend storytelling (including the more fantastical varieties) is comparable to any of their other artistic endeavors. Art is not a den of sin by nature. Whatever use fiction has against the Enemy, it cannot give of itself, any more than a bucket can provide water of its own accord. It has to be filled with whatever you wish to provide.

But even then, the best use we have for fiction is not to drag them to our Father’s house, but to reinforce a dragging that is already underway. For instance, Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy does carry a note of delicious subversion, and has in a tiny handful of cases been helpful in bringing humans before our Father’s leering grin. The key is that it is helpful, not foundational. Pullman needed to be guided and coaxed before he could instill his anti-Enemy worldview into a single paragraph. And as with the author, so with the reader. You will notice that a large majority of his devoted admirers already held the Enemy in healthy contempt, or were well on their way to doing so.

Thus, we can see fiction for what it is: a sort of “working out” of a Patient’s heart, with an influence that has to supplement whatever is already present. It is spice, not entree.

Of course, you were mainly interested in fantastic fiction, particularly with magical figures in the story, who commune with spirits and turn into animals, and the like. I am afraid that even these are of use that is as limited as it is dependent.

It might be a different story if High Command did not have the standing order to (in your Patient’s culture, at least) conceal our presence unless otherwise necessary. Magicians are much more charismatic when they are taken seriously, not laughed off as charlatans or fringe lunatics. Rank materialism is closer now to being hybridized with belief in the supernatural than it was a century ago, but for now most of the links are still tenuous. The best of both worlds is still just beyond our grasp, and we must give it time to mature.

Therefore, as always, your Patient’s particular vulnerabilities will decide the angle of attack. If he is one of the precious few in his culture who regard real Magicians as commanding authentic power, you might be able to work some favorable influence. With the right kind of fiction, that is.

Fiction that subverts the Enemy’s declarations – whether overtly or with subtlety – can sometimes make all the difference. You can often see our own whispers into an author’s mind, filtering through the pages. In that case, I reiterate that this fiction has value, but only as a means of reinforcing whatever else we have encouraged and cultivated. Otherwise, a novel that has reinforced one soul’s journey to Hell might disastrously be used by the Enemy to wake another Patient to that same journey, whereupon the human is in great danger of reversing course and wandering into the Enemy’s embrace.

That explosion can be ignited by a thousand short fuses. Perhaps the Patient is awakened to the need for a transcendent reality and, unless promptly guided to one of the many decoy religions we have established, will be on a fast track to Heaven. Or the beauty and gravity of the fictional world might rekindle a hunger that will have him asking all the wrong sorts of questions, which of course the Enemy will be delighted to barge in and answer.

As for fiction that is not subversive of the Enemy, those varieties of fantastic fiction and characters hardly ever were of use for our Father’s cause, except perhaps as idle entertainment that distracts instead of edifies. Be sure your Patient avoids any and all fiction that the Enemy has encouraged in humans. He is crafty, and you stand to only make half-hearted and ham-fisted attempts of subversion against a foundation He has already laid.

As always, if you find yourself in the enemy’s camp, see if you can exploit the legalism inherent in a pharisaical teacher, who commands or coaxes other believers to regard every variety of fantastic fiction as an encouragement to the Occult.

Such humans are eminently amusing, spreading strife where it need not occur, and souring the seeds of the Enemy’s will for many a budding storyteller, all because they lack (or have not exercised) the insight, or craftiness, or creativity of the very God they endlessly claim to speak for. Alexandria never lost so many books to fire as we have successfully suppressed in Christians who were convinced by such teachers to withhold their stories from the world.

Your affectionate uncle,

Screwtape

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The Joy of Writing: Robbed and Regained

Like many fantasy writers, I get a ton of inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien. The more I read his work, the more quotable he becomes. He has left quite an impression on my work and imagination, even in the reasons I write stories.

This will just be a brief instance of that procrastination known as “writing about writing,” before I finally return to the long-neglected bliss of rewriting that fantasy novel and bringing out what I pray will be the story it was meant to tell.

When people began trying to equate his stories of Middle Earth with contemporary events or themes or hot button topics, Tolkien bristled at the notion that he was writing commentary. He was fine with applicability, but current events were not the point. Tolkien had what he described as a cordial dislike for allegory. “I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers.”

That’s largely my perspective as well. He weaved together this world of Elves and Hobbits and noble Men, and made his stories about the characters and their situations. Not about “the dangers of power” or “relationships” or “self-sacrifice” or the other themes some writers will obsess over. Fiction loses something important when it angsts more about theme/meaning than what its particular characters go through. You can’t quite escape from this world when that happens. Fiction loses its intended illusion of reality.

Perhaps I’m too sensitive, but the fact is my jaw sets, and my enthusiasm and imagination begin to shrivel, when fellow readers and writers spend more time discussing the “themes” or “meaning” of a story than they do discussing the tale itself. I had far too much of that in college, where nearly every professor read ideologies into the text, coldly dissecting it and scrutinizing it like a crowd of microbes in a petri dish.

And then I fell into the creative deathtrap again with too much time on my hands after graduation, taking to the blogosphere and reading deconstructions of movies that only served to rob my enjoyment of the movies themselves. I got fixated on the themes and elements and meanings and cinematography techniques when I wanted to focus on the story. Maybe it’s a side effect of ADD. I don’t know.

Thank God this doesn’t happen to everyone, however! One of my friends told me about how this same practice of dissection and examination can enrich his enjoyment of a story. And more power to him for that!

Being a writer, I still have the responsibility to study the craft of storytelling, and knowing how to tell good tales in satisfying ways. For some reason I enjoy that part of the process.

When I’m learning how to improve my own stories, and when my reading of fiction is done not to scrutinize but to enjoy, I get inspired rather than frustrated. That diminished capacity for joy begins to regain its life and color, and its roots plunge deeper. That frame of mind reminds me how much I love creating new worlds and characters.

Don’t ignore the components of a great story, though. If you are a writer, don’t skimp on technique or think that inspiration is all you need. That’s not what I mean to convey. I only mean to say this: Don’t forget the joy of escaping into another world and making new friends through the pages of a book.

New Paintings, and I Got Interviewed!

"Budding for Spring." 4 x 6 inches.

“Budding for Spring.” 4 x 6 inches. Done as a birthday present for my wonderful mom.

Good morning everyone! I have a couple of new acrylic paintings to share. Sorry I haven’t gotten much writing done, but that’s changing this afternoon, God willing. There’s stories to be finished in them there hills.

In other news, I got interviewed about my artwork by the New Falcon Herald, a local newspaper. The article should appear in their April edition. It was a very welcome surprise, and will hopefully lead to more commissions. Might even be able to support myself with the artwork, sooner or later!

"Sentry." 4 x 6 inches

“Sentry.” 4 x 6 inches. Donated to Crosses for Losses.

I am also working on a fourth science fiction story for Amazon Kindle. It’ll be the fourth episode of the Arrivers series, which is made up of the three stories on my Author’s Page now.

Happy Friday everyone!

Playing to Your Strengths: On Bigotry and Storytelling

A lot of authors have been taking a stance against bigotry among authors, especially against misogyny. Chuck Wendig is the only one I can think of right now, but I’m sure there are others. More power to them! And yet, I have to wonder, out of honest curiosity (here I’m responding to item 19 in Wendig’s article): When it comes to diversifying in our writing, are we going to let writers play to their strengths, or insist that they have to crawl up and join the cool kids at the cutting edge of “social progress” (which is of course infallible and never overdoes anything)? If they stay where they are, does that afford us the right to kick sand in their faces?

Here’s one example. I love it when books and stories have strong female protagonists. In fact, that’s one reason I have no objections to Tauriel, the new female Elf character who’s going to be in the next Hobbit movie. And why the heck should I object? Strong female characters are awesome. It’s true, men get the spotlight too often. Women ought to make more decisions as characters, be more fleshed-out like the human beings (or elves/fairies/aliens…you get the idea) they are, fight in more battles, and affect the plot more than just being a prize for a man to win. When a book includes a female character who is, you know, a person, I celebrate. Break out the Guinness and firecrackers!

However, that doesn’t mean I’m only going to read stories with strong women, nor does it mean I “have to” only encourage authors who include them. An author may indeed be the “god” controlling everything on the page. And sometimes a god should be allowed to focus on male characters, not only female ones. You won’t get me to throw out my copy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World because only men get to climb the prehistoric plateau and shoot at Pterodactyls, while the women are manipulative, liable to scream, barely figure into the story, and stay in England.

Wendig and others seem to regard authors as the deities who control pages, yet these are strange deities if they must keep up with what bloggers insist they must do. What if the author (male or female) doesn’t write a strong female protagonist into their work because they feel utterly unqualified to develop that sort of character? Does that make them misogynist, or behind the times? Does their inability to develop a take-charge female character indicate a weakness in their writing? If it is indeed a problem, do they have to fix it right freaking now, lest they be branded a bigot?

Does it make someone a homophobe if they don’t/won’t write about gay characters? Is an author racist if all of their protagonists are white? Do they hate Irishmen if there’s nary a brogue to flavor the dialogue?

The answer that should be obvious is “not necessarily.” The decisions a writer makes rarely — if ever — betray a person’s opinion. (And deconstructionism should be locked deep in the ice of Hell’s ninth circle for saying otherwise) Even when they do state their personal opinions, readers keep using said opinions to write them off. I’ve seen people declare with straight faces that they will not read any of Orson Scott Card’s fiction because they hate his stance on gay marriage.

Really? You’re choosing to care that deeply about what one writer thinks? Whatever. I’m still going to read his books, and love them.

Aren’t you supposed to let yourself get sucked into the story? Suspend your disbelief, and as long as the author has done a good job, the story should be all that matters to you. If you’re mainly worried that the author’s not checking off little boxes for what “must” be in today’s fiction, or you disregard their work because of differing personal opinions, you’ve already failed as a reader.

I’d rather someone roll up their sleeves and tell a great story, regardless of their stance on the controversial subject du jour, and regardless of the genders/races/creeds of their characters. Even when the bigotry is real and overt (e.g. the racism in H.P. Lovecraft’s tales), there is still potential for great fiction. I consider it a deep injustice whenever a good storyteller is vilified because their opinions aren’t PC enough for the popular crowd.

Writing from the Ashes

One of the favorite motifs of fiction is resurrection. Characters redeem themselves (or try to), the past catches up for better or worse, and there are phoenixes everywhere ascending from ashes. My own book is called Revived. History itself is given a legacy of resurrection, thanks to Christ rising from His grave.

Resurrection was also the theme of the Pikes Peak Writers Conference. Even better than last year’s event, this was an unforgettable time to make new friends and meet with old ones.

To wit:

To the right is DeAnna Knippling, critiquing guru and author. On the left is Amber Benson, who played Tara from "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and is a novelist as well. Both of these ladies are AWESOME human beings! And lots of fun to hang out with.

To the right is DeAnna Knippling, critiquing guru and author. On the left is Amber Benson, who played Tara on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and is a novelist as well. Both of these ladies are AWESOME human beings! Lots of fun to hang out with.

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Libba Bray, being her crazy self. Hilarious, friendly, and just plain likable.

My friend Joseph Smits. I can't think of many writers who make me laugh as hard as this gentleman. And Amber photobombs like a pro!

My friend Joseph Smits. I can’t think of many writers who make me laugh as hard as this gentleman. And Amber photobombs like a pro!

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My good friend Rob Killam. Did I mention he writes zombies like no one else? This guy’s gonna go far someday. Guaranteed.

And here's a picture of some chicken. Marriott staff took very good care of us. Which is good, since we writers are high-maintenance.

And here’s a picture of some chicken. Marriott staff took very good care of us. Which is good, since we writers are high-maintenance.

Aaron Michael Ritchey, Libba Bray, and Amber Benson led the way with keynote speeches. Inspiration filled the air like an inviting perfume. I got the sense of openness and fellowship that I’ve been missing for so long in my writing life.

Oh, and I should mention I pitched the fantasy novel, and the agent requested 20 pages. That’s always good news! [But I did realize I played up the sci-fi aspect of it like the book was a half-and-half blend of fantasy and sci-fi, when it’s more like 2% sci-fi and 98% straight up fantasy. So I almost screwed up the pitch unnecessarily. Oh well. 20 pages is still good! :)]

Thanks for your time, everyone! I’ve got a sequel to my sci-fi Kindle story to work on, and twenty pages to prepare for official submission. Carry on, and remember: It’s never too late to rise from the ashes.

The First Six Paragraphs of My Book

I realized I’ve done a lot of talking about writing, and the writing writers who write about writing. Did I mention it involves writing? Well, that’s enough of that. Not writing in general. Just writing about writing. Let’s go back to storytelling! I’m resuming a journey back to the dragons and engraved swords, the buildings of high beauty and strange color — the beautiful things that drew me to writing in the first place.

Time to throw some specificity into the recipe. I’m sharing what are currently the first six paragraphs of my novel in progress. If you’ve got a work in progress as well, I invite you to share the first six paragraphs in a blog post of your own.

These words are completely open to suggestion and critique. If you’ve got something to say, feel free to comment or email. As if I even need to say this, but copyright belongs to me. Obviously. Hope you enjoy it!

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Heavy eyelids opened at a hint of light. The young man’s sight was unfocused, as if underwater, and his body burned. Every movement ground his nerves like a file. He tried to moan, but his sore throat only permitted a gurgle. A blanket’s weight pressed on him. He could make out the walls of a small room and murky shapes of furniture. His only illumination filtered through a window to his right.

Memories were scattered and fragmented, retreating like a swarm of moths when he tried to grasp them. At first he thought it was just a dream. But the blanket’s itching fibers scratched him too coarsely, the sore muscles hurt too much. Where was he? How did he come here?

The young man couldn’t even remember his name.

Heavy footsteps pounded from behind a door at the room’s other side, a door as tall and black as death itself.

His heartbeat rushed. He stumbled around the corners of his brain, probing for clues, for any inkling that could remind him who might be outside. Still the moths fluttered about, turning to dust and forgotten as soon as he caught them. The footsteps receded, leaving him in silence again.

Then his mind grabbed hold of something, tiny and fragile. A name, the most familiar name to him. Josh. Yes, that sounded like it ought to be his name. Josh…Kingston, he thought. My name is Joshua Richard Kingston.

Revived is Finally Revised

My first novel, The Wolfglen Legacy: Revived, has finally been revised. Once I give it time to breathe (leaving it alone for 3-4 weeks) and then do a final polish, it will be ready to send off to an agent. Almost every necessary tweak and critique has been done, and it’s ready to go. I still can’t believe I actually pulled this off.

[EDIT: I should add that my deadline for December 3rd had to be pushed back to the 6th, thanks to my laptop crashing on me. But the point is that I finished on time, and now I can go see The Hobbit with some friends on opening night! Yay!]

In celebration, I’d like to share the theme song from The Avengers. You know, because it sounds very triumphant.