Tuesday, February 27, 2007

JSB: Gnawing Questions

I'm sometimes asked why I write suspense. It has been pointed out to me that if I had adopted the pen name Belle Scott-James, and wrote romances, I might have reached the widest market that exists. But I always remember what Gilbert Morris once said, that the three things he'd never try are incest, folk dancing and writing a romance.


Now let me say up front that this is not about the merits of writing romances. I'll let Gil field the tomatoes on that one. Besides, I have several friends who write, or once wrote romances. And I don't have anything against Fabio.

No, what I want to consider is the question of why we write what we do. That's always worth a step back and ponder from time to time.

Nicholas Sparks, for example, has been quite open in admitting he writes as a business proposition. He told author David Morrell he saw that a certain genre of book seemed to have the best shot at massive return for the time investment. He literally chose his market, his niche, his brand, his profile, according to commercial calculation, and has succeeded wildly.

Which is fine. He's a businessman, and in our free enterprise system that's permissible.

Morrell, after hearing this, reflected that he is just not constituted to be that kind of writer. He can write only when there is something (an "inner ferret" he calls it) gnawing at him, something that needs expression from the deepest part of himself.

I'm a Morrell type rather than a Sparks type. That's why I write suspense. It's the genre that's best for me to explore questions I consider important, usually centering on how people of faith deal with real evil in the world.

For example, my latest novel, No Legal Grounds, is about a subject that has long fascinated me – sociopathology. This came to a head as I watched the Scott Peterson case unfolding. How a seemingly nice, charming guy, the proverbial boy next door, could use and abuse women and ultimately murder his wife and unborn child, and sit stone faced through a whole trial, became a burning question in my gut.

I began to ask myself how a good Christian family man, a respected lawyer, might react if a sociopath decides, for reasons unknown, to come after him and his family. And what if the legal system, because the sociopath is so clever, is unable to help? And if the Christian man has a vulnerable teen-age daughter who becomes subject to the evil, what then? What would this father do?

That's the germ of suspense for me, when I am able to set up hard questions that don't provide any easy answers, or easy ways of escape.

But there's even more to it than that. I had some professional people read the book in manuscript, and while I was gratified with their favorable comments about the suspense aspect, what was even more important to me was their connection to the issues the book raises. One said, "the evil of the antagonist resonates." A review of the book noted that this "straight-from-the-headlines tale will raise the hair on your neck for one important reason: it could happen to any of us."

That last line sums up why I wrote No Legal Grounds. It's this very real menace, garbed in charming clothes, that drove me to the keyboard. Yes, I want and need to keep the readers flipping pages. If I fail as a storyteller, the rest won't matter.

But mostly I want and need my "inner ferret" to do its work.

My last novel, Presumed Guilty, dealt with a problem I see as epidemic, pornography. It began when I started to ask myself the question of how a good Christian woman, the wife of a prominent pastor, would react if she found her husband was using porn? It built from there into a murder case and other family issues.

I got more mail from readers about Presumed Guilty than ever before. Many women readers thanked me profusely for dealing with this subject, because they had husbands or boyfriends addicted to porn.

And then there were the men, who wrote to me admitting the problem, said how important this subject was. One heart rending letter begged me to keep praying for deliverance.

This reaction somewhat stunned me, but told me that I'd hit the nerve I was aiming for.

Then today (as I write) I read two stories in the newspaper that show both pornography and sociopathology are on the rise. All this confirms for me that I have chosen the right genre for my "inner ferret."

As a writer, you need to make a decision, too. If you want to write to make money, it's not against the law. You can aim for markets and try to please them. I've even heard of writers using focus groups to help shape their books. Hey, I used to be a trial lawyer, we did that all the time with juries.

But in my experience the best fiction, the most lasting fiction, the fiction that reaches people at a deeper level is not going to come from a purely commercial place.

One of my dear friends used to write historical romances. They were good, too, and the genre is fine for others. But they weren't the books she truly wanted to write. Sales were disappointing. One day she said to a few of us, "You know, I'm not making money writing what I don't want to write. I might as well not make money writing what I do want to write."

The result of that decision is a string of amazing, award-winning novels by an author named Lisa Samson.

Another close friend long ago decided that the fiction she wanted to write had to be a challenge for her. The result has been a body of work that is stunningly original, and has even become a de facto brand. We've learned to "expect the unexpected" from Angie Hunt.

I could add many other examples here. But these will suffice to make the point again, that the best fiction comes from the deepest part of you.

So if you decide this is the kind of fiction you want to write, I say welcome, Brother; glad to have you, Sister. Give us your vision and your passion, the thing that gnaws.

Give us a glimpse of your writer's soul.

James Scott Bell


At 6:12 AM, Anonymous Michael Ehret said...

Wow, JSB. A classic on writing from your heart (or ferret, if you will). Thank you, thank you, thank you.

At 8:10 AM, Blogger Richard Mabry said...

Thanks, Jim, for this glimpse into your heart. I'm looking forward to reading No Legal Grounds. May your laptop and that favorite space at Starbucks continue to be productive tools, allowing you to provide both entertaining reading and a solid witness to so many people.

At 9:13 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

Fabulous post! Thanks, thanks, thanks. Makes us think. Deeply. "The best fiction comes from the deepest part of you," you said. Oh, man, that's a power statement. Maybe that's WHY Nicholas Sparks's first novel, The Notebook, took off, even though, as you say, he studied the market, and the commercial potential of the genre. The Notebook is based on the love story of his wife's grandparents. Thanks again.

At 9:23 AM, Blogger PH said...

I'm definitely an inner ferret kind of girl.

But I'm surprised that Gilbert says he doesn't write romances.

At 12:19 PM, Anonymous Nick said...

Excellent post, Jim. I don't think I'll easily forget the image of the inner ferret gnawing away.

At 1:36 PM, Blogger John Robinson said...

Thanks, Jimbo. That spoke deeply to me today. And you know why. Thanks.


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