Monday, 18 November 2013

Acceptable content in Christian fiction

by Narelle Atkins

There has been a lot of debate among Australasian writers regarding what is acceptable content in Australian and New Zealand Christian fiction books. For the purposes of this post, I’ll define Christian fiction as the category of books that are labelled Christian and primarily sold either online or in Christian book stores.

Christian worldview

There is a distinction between a Christian who writes fiction from a Christian worldview for the general market and a Christian who writes books that are labelled Christian fiction. A Christian worldview can be very subtle or more pronounced. Readers usually prefer books with strong Christian themes and content to be labelled as Christian or inspirational fiction.

Christian fiction audience

Many Christian fiction writers have a heart for reaching the unsaved. Others want to entertain their readers with wholesome stories that are uplifting and provide hope and encouragement for the Christian journey. Some want to address issues from a Christian perspective and show their characters growing in their faith as they face tough situations. Each writer is different and needs to choose the publishing path that fits with their goals and aspirations.

Christian fiction in North America

The Christian fiction category is dominated by books from North America. Christian fiction readers have certain expectations regarding the content of Christian fiction books. The typical Christian fiction book is usually written from a non-denominational evangelical Christian worldview. 

It is expected that Christian characters behave in a manner that upholds Biblical principles. When they fall down and sin, there are negative consequences in the natural world but also grace and forgiveness from God. Christian characters aren’t perfect and they struggle with real issues, irrespective of the genre.

Christian fiction publishers

Publishers of Christian fiction tend to take a conservative stance regarding content. They are running a business and can’t afford to alienate any segment of the Christian fiction readership. If book stores won’t stock their books due to customer complaints about content, this will have a negative impact on the publisher’s bottom line. Publishers want to maximise the size of their market, not shrink their sales. 

Pushing the envelope

A lot of the discussion regarding the content of Christian fiction centres on how far writers can push the envelope. Common questions include:

Can you include swearing, bad language, blasphemy, sensuality, violence, blood and gore, paranormal or supernatural elements in any of the Christian fiction genres? 

If yes, where is the line in the sand? What is the Biblical foundation for deciding upon the location of this line?

Can you include a love scene in a Christian romance? How far can a Christian romance writer go regarding the description of intimate moments between their characters? Is the bedroom door open, closed, or are those scenes never acceptable in a Christian romance, even if the couple are married?

Are swear/cuss words ever okay in Christian fiction? If yes, which words are acceptable for a Christian audience?

Why are violent or gory scenes okay in certain Christian fiction genres but even a hint of sexual content is often frowned upon in Christian romances? Is this a double standard?

Is the Aust/NZ Christian fiction readership less conservative than the North American readership? Is there a desire for more edgy content from Christian fiction readers in our part of the world? If yes, how can Aust/NZ writers reach this audience without offending the more conservative readers?

Writing guidelines on acceptable content

I write for Love Inspired Heartsong Presents in North America and they provide their authors with a list of guidelines regarding acceptable content. I’m happy to follow all the rules on their list. Why? Because Love Inspired readers trust the brand and know what the books will deliver. I respect my future readers and value their expectations. I don’t want to offend any readers and I would prefer to take a more conservative approach to the content in my books. For example, I’ve heard people complain about bad language in Christian fiction books, but I haven’t seen the complaints about a lack of bad language in Christian books.

My take on the discussion

The reality is my personal opinions as an author regarding what I think is acceptable in Christian fiction aren’t the most important issue. Now I’ve signed a publishing contract, I’m writing to please my future readers. I hope my books will entertain readers with a satisfying and uplifting romance story that encourages readers in their faith and inspires readers to consider faith matters.

Reader expectations of acceptable content

The market dictates the genre expectations of Christian fiction. Writers are wise to heed the voice of Christian fiction readers if they want to sell books to a large audience. Indie authors have more freedom regarding content. The savvy Christian indie authors will find their niche and put content warnings on their books if they sit outside the box. Readers can then choose if they want to ‘go there’ before they purchase the book. 

Readers are smart

Readers use their imagination when they read books. For example, a writer might envisage that their character has a tattoo but choose not to mention this detail in the story. Readers who are comfortable with tattooed Christian characters will likely join the dots and envisage a specific character with one or more tattoos. Other readers who dislike tattoos will create their own visual picture and not be offended or thrown out of the story by the mention of a tattoo. The same can be said for the back story of your characters. Give your readers the freedom to create their own version of the back story that sits comfortably within their worldview and doctrinal beliefs.

A question

What content do you find either acceptable or unacceptable in Christian fiction? Is unacceptable content a deal breaker? Would it stop you from reading the story or future books by the author or publisher? Do you like edgy fiction books that push the envelope and go further than the typical Christian fiction book? I’d love to hear your thoughts.



NARELLE ATKINS writes contemporary inspirational romance and lives in Canberra, Australia. She sold her debut novel, set in Australia, to Harlequin's Love Inspired Heartsong Presents line in a 6-book contract. Her first book, Falling for the Farmer, will be a February 2014 release, followed by The Nurse's Perfect Match in May 2014. 

Narelle blogs regularly with International Christian Fiction Writers. http://internationalchristianfictionwriters.blogspot.com/ 

She is also a co-founder of the Australian Christian Readers Blog Alliance (ACRBA). http://acrba.blogspot.com 

Website: http://www.narelleatkins.com 
Blog: http://narelleatkins.wordpress.com 
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/NarelleAtkinsAuthor 
Twitter: @NarelleAtkins https://twitter.com/NarelleAtkins

50 comments:

  1. The double standard that I find uncomfortable is that Christian fiction will allow a depiction of a rape scene, but not a married couple making love. I'm not saying that I want to see sex in Christian fiction (if Christians want to read sex in fiction there are thousands of general-market opportunities), but I do see this as a double standard.

    I'm also not comfortable reading detailed violence in fiction, whether labelled Christian or not. I like your idea of not being too specific about the details and allowing the reader to work it out for themselves (that also enables the author to focus on the present story, not the past). I've just finished Unspoken by Dee Henderson, which did this very well.

    Following on from my dislike of physical and emotional violence, I also don't like abuse stories, but notice these are becoming more common in Christian fiction. I hope this is because authors and publishers want to show abused women that God will bring them through and not just because Christian readers will buy and read violence but not sex. Because there's something wrong if violence is okay but sex as God intended isn't.

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    1. Iola I have read a few books with rape scenes and wish they were not so graphic in Christian books to the point I don't know if I want to read more from an author. I think its ok to make mention but for an author to go into to detail is way to much for a Christian book.
      I also agree about detailed violence. I have read a few abuse stories but they happened in the past and show how the heroine was affected and also showed how having someone really loving her the way she should be she was able to deal with the issue. It also showed how hard it is for someone to leave but the violence was left out. I don't want to read a book showing the violence either.
      I think my line in the sand comes from the verse saying we should not make another brother or sister fall. While some of the things may not affect me it may be a stumbling block for others. It is one reason I will not put some of these books in the church library, I use if I wouldn't given them to mum to read they do not go in the church library.

      If I read a book with blasphemy or swearing I will not buy another book from that author. They can be the best in the business but I will not buy another book from them. I have made that stand with a couple of authors already. I was extremely disappointed as one author I did enjoy her books.

      I am a reader and thank you for saying we are smart. I have read so many comments by authors that its the readers fault that there books are not selling or that we are uneducated and not buying there books. Its not that its because we don't like the book or have an issue with them. Readers can be fickle if we don't like one book we may not buy another by that author because there are plenty of others to read. I have author friends who know I support them but will not buy there books due to the period in they write. They know I will help promote them but they know its not my type of book.

      I am Aussie and conservative and I don't want books that push the envelope. From talking with many of the readers that borrow from our library they also like the conservative books best. They don't want preachy or any that are pushing the envelope.

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    2. Iola, I've only read a couple of Christian fiction books with rape scenes that were written at least 3 or 4 years ago. This is probably because I'm not usually drawn to these types of stories. In both instances the rape scene was a critical part of the plot that couldn't be removed or glossed over without weakening the story. The authors wrote the scenes with sensitivity and didn't go into graphic or explicit detail.

      Issues stories eg. abuse, rape, can sometimes 'go further' than other Christian fiction books without offending readers. If the book cover, back cover blurb etc. defines the book as addressing a specific issue, readers who don't like those stories can choose not to buy them. As a reader, I don't like surprises in the sense that I wouldn't want to find a graphic, explicit or violent rape scene in the middle of a book that was marketed as a sweet Christian romance.

      Jenny, thanks for sharing your thoughts from a reader's perspective. I like your line in the sand, and as an author I don't want to write something that could cause someone to stumble. It's impossible to write a book that everyone will like. The big challenge for authors who write stories that push the envelope is how to market their books to the Christian fiction audience who are looking for edgier stories.

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    3. Narelle the one I read about a rape scene did go to far it described some of the things happening to the girl and I felt extremely uncomfortable reading the scene.
      I think that's the big thing about books is not all readers like all books. I think knowing who they are targeted to helps. like I mentioned I have helped promote regencies where the authors know I do not like them. Some of the edgier books I read don't push the boundaries to far look at Michelle Sutton for an example.

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    4. Jenny, I'm interested in your guideline re books in your church library. I suspect I'm old enough to be your Mum, and yet I long for a book to show real life. I like my books to be reflect our society now, and call us to a better one. Wendy Francis who spoke at my book launch drew the line this way, "You have shown us the horror of abuse without leaving graphic images in my mind."

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    5. Jo, not many books get rejected but if there is language in them we have a lot of older readers who will soon let me know its unsuitable. (Mum would be 94 is she was alive). There are not many I have rejected but have read one or two I just cant put in cos of the language. Like the book from America which has a word ok there but not here in it. (and over used) considering I could not read it cos of it (and I am saying in one chapter it was used 30 times) . Some of our older ladies are very conservative (more so than mum was) and I would hear about it no end.

      Jo I am talking 70+

      I ones I read with a graphic rape scene I got as an ebook so no issue there. As I provide almost all the fiction books there is no issue with the book.

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    6. Jenny, I can understand why the rape scene, with the level of detail you mentioned, would not be your first choice in reading material. I'm well under 70 and I don't like reading bad language in books. I wouldn't necessarily stop reading a book because I came across a few swear words, but I have stopped reading a couple of secular romance authors due to the large volume of bad language. Swearing is contagious, I hear enough of it in my real life, and I don't want to absorb it as I read. In that sense, Christian fiction books with bad language could cause me as a reader to stumble.

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  2. This is certainly a hot topic, Narelle - for writers and readers alike - and it is a fine line to tread for authors.

    This is a topic that I have often discussed with authors, fellow bloggers, and my book club members. Prefacing this whole discussion that I am generalising here, but yes, I do believe Australasians are less sensitive to these issues than American readers. That said, there is a multitude of readers here and in the US who want more authenticity in the novels they read and less of unrealistic perfection in characters and stories.

    A lot depends on why people read, I think. I read for encouragement, intellectual and emotional engagement, to be challenged, and of course, for entertainment. So for me, I want genuine characters, who struggle, react poorly on occasion, sometimes make bad decisions - just like me - so I can see God's grace and mercy (and discipline/consequences) in action. Others want to simply escape to another perfect world where it is all sweetness and light - my grandmother loved those stories and I'm thrilled they were there for her and others who enjoy that.

    I am concerned, however, that going forward the Christian market may lose the upcoming readership who wrestle with all kind of temptation/influence/media saturation, etc because they cannot relate to characters who have not had an imperfect thought, or who only emphasise the media's emphasis on physical beauty and immediate attraction.

    That said, I'm not about gratuitous violence or intimate scenes, but authentic and real storytelling. The Bible is full of all sorts of dreadful realities and we learn from it, so carefully and sensitively done there needs to be some consideration of where the line should be. There are some books by popular Christian authors that have made me uncomfortable that others have loved and have no issue with. It's tricky, isn't it?

    And then there are male readers - what is there for them? I love Robert Liparulo's novels and so do a lot of men I know. They are violent - as is appropriate for the storyline - but they aren't filled with sex and language so they are a great option for male readers who aren't as sensitive about violence as many women.

    Like Iola, there is often a double standard. I'd also like to see the issue of beautiful and rich characters dealt with. I think that portrayal can also be quite damaging and so often unrealistic. People don't have to be beautiful to fall in love - wealth does not a perfect marriage make!

    Well, I probably could wax on about this topic but I will stop now ;-)

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    1. Rel, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I agree with your generalisation that the average Australasian Christian reader is likely to be less sensitive in certain areas than US readers. I think that's a reflection of our society and culture, rather than specific theological differences.

      I also wonder if the desire 'not to offend' in part creates the seemingly perfect characters that in turn offend the readers who want to read about more authentic and real characters and stories.

      Men have different tastes and reading preferences to women, and there doesn't seem to be a wide variety of Christian fiction books targeting the male audience.

      The general market romance genre pushes the 'rich and beautiful' sterotype. The challenge for Christian romance writers is to focus on inner beauty and character rather than worldly aspirations. I touch a little bit on this in my first book, Falling for the Farmer. Kate, my runaway bride, leaves a wealthy man at the altar in Chapter One.

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  3. Hi Narelle,
    If I represent a typical Australasian reader, I do agree that we might be more tolerant of edgier material. Sometimes I am quite surprised by feedback I read about various books from those in the northern hemisphere, especially the US, and have to remind myself, "Oh, yeah, that's right." I think that if we are trying to write Christian stories, we need to be extra careful, as it may be easier for us to accidentally offend readers but be totally oblivious until we hear about it. However, if we like to focus on those controversial or tricky aspects of life in our writing, I think there are ways of working it so people don't get offended. We just need to be wise enough to sense which parts to emphasise and which to gloss over and leave to the readers' imaginations. For example, I appreciate it when novels make it clear that somebody is swearing without mentioning the words, or that a love scene is happening without making us an unwilling third party.

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    1. Paula, I agree it's very easy to accidentally offend readers, despite all our good intentions. The reality is we can't please everyone and we need to find the readers that appreciate the content in our unique stories. My American critique partners have been incredibly helpful in picking up what I call 'cultural blunders'. Readers are smart enough to join the dots and they don't need everything spelled out to know what's going on in the story.

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  4. Hi Narelle, thanks so much for writing on this topic. I really appreciate the way you wrote it and the sensitivity you have. You have obviously thought long and hard on the topic and I'm very grateful that you've shared your wisdom. I like what you said that readers don't complain about there being no swearing or no explicit sex scenes and that is so true. I think this discussion is not only one that comes up for Christian writers though. Swearing in mainstream books is something that is usually only pulled out for the shock value or emphasis. If done too much it loses it's power.
    I also like your statement that readers are smart. We have our God given imaginations and we should use them, helped of course by the authors descriptions.
    I guess the question should always be asked why do I want my character to swear or why do I think I need to describe this sex scene? What is the purpose? What do I hope to achieve? Can I communicate that shock or achieve that emotion in my readers some other way? And most importantly; Is this honouring and glorifying to God?
    We're all so diverse in our life experiences and experiences of God. Different things speak to each of us in different ways.
    Great chat

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    1. Hi Linsey, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts :) You've brought up really important points that all Christian writers need to consider. Is the content in our books honouring and glorifying God? If we're including edgy content: What is the purpose? Will these stories reach readers and bring them closer to the Lord?

      There's definitely a need for relevant and diverse stories, ranging from those written from a Christian worldview in the general market to the more overt faith element that's not preachy in Christian fiction.

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  5. As an author, my novels have certainly been classed as edgier than most Christian fiction novels. I would say my work is Christian Worldview. I can honestly say that I wouldn't have it any other way. As a reader I often found Christian characters unbelievable and sterile to life's hardships, so I write characters that are flawed and struggle - just as I do. As a consequence, I have a lot of great feedback from mainstream readers, who don't know God.
    My personal preferences aside, I do strongly believe that there is a market for every Christian book, whether it be a story that encourages the Christian walk, or one that introduces God to those who don't know Him. We are all called to work as we must. And read as we need to.
    I think a lot of it has to do with readers knowing the category a novel (and an author) falls into (i.e. Christian fiction or Christian Worldview).

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    1. Rose, I'm not sure all Australasian Christian readers would consider your books edgy, although that would be a good description to use when describing your books to US readers. Again, I think this relates to the sensitivities Rel mentioned earlier. US readers are used to specific inspirational romance genre conventions that are defined by the more conservative publishers. It's really important that readers know what they're buying and can choose the books that they are comfortable to read.

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    2. Rose I love your books I don't consider them to edgy but they would be like Michelle Suttons (a little less than hers). I haven't read book 3 yet but loved book 2. Actually I could name a lot more edgy than yours but I wont.

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    3. I agree. I didn't consider your books edgy, Rose. I did appreciate the real characters, though

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  6. Narelle, interesting discussion and thank you for writing the post.

    I now take your perspective. There are a set of guidelines (whether explicitly stated or not) that a publisher has and so I write towards that standard. Yes, this took a while for me to appreciate but was all part of the journey. There's a word that I used in Angelguard a couple of times which reflected the hatred an individual felt towards another which some American readers didn't appreciate. Knowing that now I probably would have modified it without losing it's intent.

    From a personal reading perspective I second Rel's comments. I'm looking for genuine characters who grapple with light & darkness as I believe most of us do. As Rel notes the Bible has some pretty gutsy stories, most of which enable us to see a picture of God and His love for His people whether that's through discipline or otherwise. And I want to see God's hand in the stories I read.

    I also have a personal preference to reading stories that have an explicit "faith" message, however, as I wrote in my first post for ACW many authors and readers don't necessarily share the same desire. Just one of many variants to our wonderful writing world.

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    1. Hi Ian, thanks for sharing your perspective. I think learning the market is part of our writing journey. If we're writing for publication, we learn to put aside our own unique personal preferences and view our books as products for readers. The Bible is full of stories and content that wouldn't be considered appropriate by many readers in the Christian fiction market.

      Readers who are looking to escape and be entertained by Christian fiction still want to read about authentic and real characters. I really like how readers can choose from a wide range of books with different levels of faith content. A more overt or more subtle Christian message doesn't make a book better or worse by comparison.

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    2. I don't mind a faith element infact some books I read last year after mum died had the theme verse as one of her favourites and it really touched me. I have however been told many readers will skip a sermon in a book and not read them. I will read them. I think it can depend what sort of reading mood I am in at present It has to be light.

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  7. This is a really tricky area if as a writer you a) want to reach beyond the Christian market to those who are less likely to pick up an obviously Christian novel, but may be touched by a Christian worldview, and b) if you are writing about real life issues and how characters deal with tough and tragic life events. I believe there's a way to have these in stories without being too graphic, and I believe swearing and cussing are not helpful or necessary in dialogue to get across a character's anger or other emotions. However, it's probably impossible not to offend some readers, unless it's made very clear in the blurb that there's nothing in the story which might make them uncomfortable. If readers want light, sweet, romantic stories, there's plenty of them out there, and I think they should be clearly identifiable.

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    1. Carol, it's definitely tricky for Christian fiction writers to find the balance in writing about certain issues in a realistic way that's also sensitive to the genre expectations of the typical Christian fiction reader. General market readers can be offended by overt religious content in books that aren't defined in a religious category. The marketing and book classification is very important. Authors who write within a defined genre can find it easier to communicate the content of their story to potential readers.

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    2. I think having books marketed as to what sort of book they are helps readers most. if a book says inspirational romance we expect a light story. if the classification is wrong that's when we have a bigger problem.
      That's one way its hard with historical as most say historical romance but if its historical then there is scope for a broader story line.

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  8. Another reader here. I've chosen to read books that are almost exclusively Christian fiction, with the exception of some older classics that I know will not have any questionable content (such as L.M. Montgomery and Susan Coolidge).

    Where to start? Well, the first thing that comes to mind it the use of swearing. I don't mind when a book indicates that a person is swearing, but I don't want to actually have to read the word. I struggle a lot with words that have become socially acceptable - I don't want to use them myself, so I don't want to read them and further pollute my mind. I would say if an author is in doubt about a particular word and how it will be received leave it out!

    As for violence, I think that depends on the context and type of book. I like mysteries and suspense, and most of those have an element of violence. You can't have a book set during war time without there being violence. I have found there are some authors who deal with it very well - Dee Henderson, Irene Hannon, Noel Hynd, Don Brown, Al Lacy and Mindy Starns Clark to name a few. Even the Bible has violence - think about the book of Judges and people such as Ehud, Jael and Samson. There are definitely ways to include it in a story without being too graphic.

    One of the things I'm finding with the recent books I have read by Australian authors is that the basic plots are very similar - 2 people with a history together that they are not proud of, coming back together after a long time and trying to sort out the issues that have separated them. Yes, it does happen, but surely there are other things that can be written about.

    As to "Christian" content - I like the way authors such a Lori Wick and Robin Jones Gunn weave in sermons and Christian living concepts as well as a gospel message. There are times I've been touched more by the novel I was reading and what the characters were working through than what was in my morning devotional book.

    Finding content in books that I don't agree with or swearing does completely put me off reading an author's books. In fact, there have been some books that I have just thrown in the recycle bin because I wasn't even prepared to pass them on to anyone else.
    Other things that I don't want to read about include rape and child abuse. We hear enough about it on the news, so the last thing I want to do is pick up a book to read and find that in there.

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    1. Hi Beth, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us :) I'd prefer to read 'He/She swore' than read the actual swear word. There are many authors who successfully write about war and other violent events in ways that aren't graphic but still show the depth and emotion of the specific situation.

      It's interesting to read your thoughts on overdone Aussie Christian romance plots. This is helpful information for the Christian romance writers reading this post. It's wonderful to hear you've been touched and encouraged by the faith element and Christian content in a number of books :)

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  9. Great discussion today. Thanks Narelle, for getting the week started with such an interesting post.

    As a reader, I know what I want and don't have much trouble finding it. If I come up against something which I don't care for, I know it was not the book or author for me. Others may not share my criteria, so I've learned not to bother too much about it.

    As a writer, I know my 'reader' and my preferred publishing options and write with them in mind. Have I changed my writing to suit? I don't think so. I write the kind of books I've always liked to read.

    Until recently, I didn't even know swearing in Christian books was a topic of discussion in our community.(Because I hadn't encountered it in what I chose as a reader.) It's interesting to see the different opinions and tastes of readers as a result.

    I guess it boils down to... "not all books are for every reader."



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    1. Dotti, it's great to hear that you know your reader and write books with your target audience of readers in mind. It's so important, if our writing goal is to publish our stories (irrespective of whether we pursue traditional publishing opportunities or choose the indie publishing road) that we identify our readership and desire to meet their expectations. It's always smart to write the books you love to read because your passion for your chosen genre will shine through in your writing :)

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  10. What an interesting thread you have started Narelle. Thanks.
    I guess my criteria as a reader is: can I read it our aloud to my friend, Jesus. It's a long time since I've read a book that He isn't comfortable with. He and I together have read lots of things, and then, even if I'm offended, I can still discuss it with Him. If I'm left with an image that sticks in my mind, he will cleanse it. Having said all that i would never read a book that I knew was purposefully immoral or idolatrous. But it is good to see an author attack these issues and bring a Godly resolution
    I struggle to find what I, and my friends, consider a 'good' book. I look for a strong story line with realistic characters with unexpected events. I read varied genre but christian romance isn't my favourite. The predictability annoys me!
    As a writer, I have just written my first rape scene with the Holy Spirit inspiring my words. I suspect it will have to be modified to be published, but the rape and concepts are pivotal for the plot. God is in all aspects of life, The good the bad and the ugly as the Bible clearly shows.
    I'm an inexperienced author, but those who are experienced tell me I must show and not tell. I'm trying to apply that rule to the entire book, including the rape scene!
    therefore I really appreciate the comments about the importance of the blurb on the cover. That was one of the mistakes I made in the last book.

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    1. Hi Jo, thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts :) It's important to know our own individual comfort zones as readers. Bad language in books bothers me because it might cause me to stumble, but I suspect I can read a much higher sensuality level than the typical Christian romance reader and not be bothered by the content. I tend to read something edgy and think 'oh, that's likely to be too much for some readers' rather than being offended myself. I respect the choice of readers to be more conservative in their views, and as an author I don't want to write something that could cause them to stumble.

      That said, I think I'd struggle to read a rape scene like you've described above that is shown on-stage. As a reader, I don't want to go into a character's head and experience that type of situation in any depth. It would definitely be helpful to signal the content in the back cover blurb, especially if it's more graphic than the typical book in that category, because it will help you to draw the readers to your story who want to read about this issue in a very real way. These are the readers who can be blessed, encouraged, and healed through your story.

      I love the predictability of romance, in terms of knowing the hero and heroine will end up together and wanting to experience the journey to their happily-ever-after ending. It sounds like we have very different tastes in reading. The great thing about the Christian fiction category is there is a wide variety of genres and stories available that appeal to different readers.

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  11. What a stimulating discussion! Thank you everyone. As a reader I am probably not qualified to contribute to this discussion; I long ago ceased to read christian romance fiction because I considered it to be too sweet to be taken seriously, and I hate to be preached at! And I have to say, the American examples I did read were very much of the 'tell and not show' variety which put them in the badly written category for me. I started reading Georgette Heyer when I was about 11 years old and after that nothing else ever compared favourably!

    I admit I have not attempted to read any Australian writing in the genre, not even the edgier examples I am told are now available. Georgette H is still my benchmark.

    As a writer, my desire is to write from a christian worldview and redemptive standpoint for the general market. Whether it ever happens or not, my aim is to write material that my non-christian friends would describe as both believable and well written and, because of it, would say 'almost you persuade me to believe'.

    As a writer I may choose to have a character swear in direct speech, but I would not put blasphemy in his mouth. I would simply imply it (or is it 'infer'? I get those two confused!). But you only have to use a swear word once to establish the nature of the character. Its unimaginative and bad writing to repeat it. Rhonda

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    1. Hi Rhonda, thanks for visiting and sharing your thoughts :) Georgette Heyer is a lovely writer and I'd love to have the time to re-read some of her books.

      Since you're writing books targeting the general market, I'd recommend reading a couple of new release Christian fiction books in your chosen genre to get a better gauge on the current market expectations. For example, Five Days in Skye by Carla Laureano is a Christian contemporary romance novel published in the US that has elements I believe are similar to general market Christian worldview romances. The divide between Christian romances and general market romances is much smaller than ten or twenty years ago.

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  12. As a reader, I will read books that have more content - skipping over bits that get too steamy and filtering out bad words - as long as it's not gratuitous to the story. I read as many secular authors as Christian ones and like to read a wide variety of genres. I find that it helps me to understand different worldviews as well as different issues. Some books I've loved (I really enjoyed Ursula Le Guin's books despite her eastern religious leanings because she gets me thinking. I don't have to accept everything a writer believes to engage with her) but I really disliked Kingslover's The Poisonwood Bible because of the crass (unfavourable ) stereotypes of missionaries in Africa (especially as I lived in Africa and interacted with missionaries about the period she was talking about.) With Christian fiction - I like more unpredictable plots that deal with real people and real issues.

    I'm not published yet but these the issues you raised Narelle I am working through as I write - what content is acceptable to readers and publishers- and am I comfortable with. I'm aiming for "crossover" fiction with maybe a little bit more edgy content (though no open bedroom doors or gratuitous sex or violence, no swearing) - but hope what I write is still acceptable to the Christian market.

    As one reader commented - the Bible itself doesn't shy away from the nitty gritty of life.

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    1. Jeanette, I think it can take time to work through all the issues and discover the sweet spot in the market where our books fit. There are readers looking for edgier content and fiction books that deal with 'out of the box' topics and issues. I think it's really important that we have Christians writing books in the general market as well as the Christian market. Writers looking to publish 'crossover' books have unique challenges to overcome that are probably a discussion topic for another day :)

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  13. I was just thinking of a friend she read a book that was an adoption story and struggled as she was adopted out at birth. Blurbs really need to give warnings of content that could cause issues. In this case the adoption was mentioned in the first couple of chapters where telling in the blurb gives nothing away.
    The same if there may be graphic content a warning is needed. I myself will not read graphic content (as in rape). I do like war stories and find people like Gilbert Morris do them well they can be a little more realistic than some want but they are not gruesome or overly graphic. In fact my favourite movie is Gettysburg which doesn't honor war but tells the of the battle it isn't blood thirsty and proves you can have a story which tells the story with out glorifying violence. Gilbert Morris is good like that with his war scenes he tells the story without glorifying the violence. When I order or request a war book I know there will be war scenes and am ready but not for bad language.

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    1. Jenny, I agree it's helpful if the back cover blurb provides a clear indication of the content in the story, especially if it's combined with a relevant cover. For example, the cover art on romance books can provide a snapshot of the sensuality level in the story.

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  14. Narelle does a good job on her overview (Hi, Narele!) I think where to draw the line in portraying sensuality and violence is a tricky one. I usually don't shy away from characters who have problems. One of my favorite heroes is just getting out of prison after 7 years for vehicular homicide. I think one can deal with almost any subject as long as one keeps it clean. I mean I don't dwell on violence or sex, but a few words can paint an accurate picture.

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    1. Hi Lyn! Thanks for stopping by and providing your helpful thoughts on my post :) Christian fiction can and does include stories by authors who address the tough issues. 'Keeping it clean' is very wise advice. I hope to catch up with you again at a conference. It's hard to believe its over five years since we met at RWAm in San Francisco!

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  15. I, too, write Christian romance. I have found that there is plenty of freedom to say things without a lot of swear words. I do sometimes wish 'hell' was more accepted though (it's not by Harleqin Love Inspired, my publisher). I don't think it's the same as taking God's name in vain -- and sometimes it's very hard to think of a word to replace it. As for sex, I'm more of the 'closed door' kind of person anyway -- I do read books with some sex, but if it's too much or too detailed I have a tendency to skip it to get on with the story.

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  16. Hi Janet! Thanks for visiting our blog and sharing your insightful thoughts :) Hell isn't usually considered a swear word in Australia. I remember being shocked a few years ago when an author friend received a lot of criticism for using that word in her Christian fiction book.

    A big congratulations on hitting the Publishers Weekly Best Seller List last week! It's always exciting to see Christian fiction books achieving these milestones :)

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  17. Thank you, Narelle, for introducing these important thoughts. The comments are all very helpful also to this "oldie" and I think have said already much of what I also think about the topic. I do believe one of the most important basic things for any writer is to write the kind of book the writer enjoys reading the MOST herself/himself. If you don't like reading certain levels of swearing, sex, violence and Christian messages that make you feel you are being preached at, than you should never include those in any book you write. Unfortunately I think there have been writers who try to follow trends and write what sells the most. I think this has become pretty evident in the increasing number of romance writers targeting the booming erotica market. In the comments above, we clearly see that writers come from as many different backgrounds - both physically as well as spiritually - as there are readers out there, and so it is natural that we need and have many different kinds of books. As has already been mentioned, different Christian cultures and countries have different standards. I was taken aback when told that some readers overseas thought that the prologue in my Return to Baragula was "edgy". When I was told that I read and re-read those pages. The only thing I could see that might suggest that was my use of the word "ecstatic" by the Christian heroine after yielding to have sex before marriage. I still think it was important to try and show later how that scene affected her spiritual life in the following years. After Faith in the Great Southland, my first historical Heartsong Presents book was released in print years ago, I was very surprised to receive several letters from readers who hated the amount of violence in it. One even mentioned she knew there was violence in the Bible but she still did not like reading it there either! Now 14 years later it has been released again as an e-book and I'm waiting to hear if I receive any more of those kinds of comments. There is a generational aspect to this whole discussion. Remember too that while we might all agree with most of the comments, we discover it is not at all easy to write acceptable books to the majority of our readers in the Christian market. My prayer is that we always keep tabs with the Lord about our motivation for writing. May we just write our "heart" stories, always searching the scriptures and using God's Word always as our guide to try and decide how explicit we show our characters and stories to our readers.

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    1. Oops! Sorry did not hit enter to make paragraphs. Bad writer!

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    2. Mary I think what readers meant was actually mentioning she had sex before marriage would be considered edgy to some American's. The fact she enjoyed it would put it further in the edgy side but the rest of the book wasn't edgy.

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    3. Mary, thanks for your detailed comments. It will be interesting to see if the level of violence noted by some readers is still an issue fourteen years later, or if times have changed?

      I agree with Jenny and her thoughts on why some readers may consider RTB edgy.

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    4. Thank you Narelle and Jenny. I had not even given that concept as a reason for being "edgy". I wrote it deliberately to try and show what can happen especially to Christians who fail this area in their Christian lives. Unresolved, unadmitted sin in our lives can have long term, severe consequences that affect not only the "doer's" life but many others also.

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  18. Good article, Narelle and I'm enjoying the discussion. As a Love Inspired Historical author, I also write for very conservative standards. And because my stories focus on missionary adventure/romance the standards get a little tighter. The challenge is always to write real people and real issues within those guidelines. I don't skirt the dangers my characters face in the jungle, or the very real threats from evil, but neither do I describe the actual violence if it does indeed take place. I do long, at times when I have a non-Christian character,to be able to say "He swore," if he really would have in a situation, but I have no desire to use the actual words. But, I confess to a bit of an eye-roll when asked to take the word "passion" out of my last story. The sentence was "Her passion was God." But, no matter the context, I was told the word was unacceptable in our stories. :)

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    1. Sounds as if the editor simply did a word search, Debbie. No wonder my ecstatic I mentioned above was unacceptable.

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    2. Oh boy Debbie Passion in that case was real. You know passion can be used so many ways without it being bad like My passion is cricket but cos of my headaches I am unable to enjoy it live this year which is really disappointing me.
      Thanks for stopping by and also the other LI writers. Oh I have to say I Love LI books.

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    3. Hi Debbie! Thanks for stopping by and joining in the discussion :) It's interesting how we use many words in different contexts that are on the no-go list. The word magical, in the context of fairy lights, was one word I had to change. I do a find and replace search on a number of words before submiting my books because I tend to forget which words I can't use :)

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  19. Have loved reading your post Narelle and subsequent comments. They certainly have a common theme.

    It was mentioned about characters who are beautiful and/or rich. My current WIP is about a Christian girl who is very beautiful, but the focus is on the problems she faces because of it, and how it has affected her self-esteem. It's been a bit of a challenge to write about the effects of her beauty in a way that explains natural male reactions without being offensive - I certainly don't want to be, but I also want it to be (healthily) real.

    I find it interesting how we object to violence in stories so, um, violently (I prefer not to read or watch excessive scenes myself) yet so much of the Bible contains it. David and his men were pretty heroic! And if one of us were to write a story along the lines of Song of Solomon certain publishing houses certainly wouldn't publish our manuscript.

    I like what Jo said - when I write, I've got Jesus reading over my shoulder right alongside me. If it makes me uncomfortable knowing that, then that particular bit is cut. No question.

    I also love how we are all so different. God is a creative God. All we can do is use our common sense (why isn't that listed as a spiritual gift?) and have genuine love as our guide. Unfortunately, we won't please everyone, but we can rest if we know we've tried out best.

    Thanks again Narelle for a great conversation starter!

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    1. Andrea, I'm really looking forward to reading your current WIP. I was intrigued by the premise of your story when you first mentioned it to me at the RWAust conference last year :) No one lives a perfect life without any troubles or hardship, and Christian romances can reflect these realities in a way that is inspiring and encouraging for readers.

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