I am thrilled to have Mark Young as my guest today. He is a former Marine, a seasoned police officer and now best-selling crime/thriller writer, besides being a super nice guy. Mark was kind enough to answer a bunch of questions for me when I was working on Precedent. I snap up his books as soon as they come out, but I think his most recent one, Broken Allegiance is my favorite. If you want intense, action-packed crime dramas that leave out all the stuff you don’t want, Mark is your guy. In fact, I’ll make sure one lucky commenter gets a copy of Mark’s newest e-book. Just make sure you comment before March 20.
Writing as a Christian in the secular market might be likened to walking into the boxing ring with one arm tied behind your back. One might feel the odds are stacked against them unless the writer remembers one thing: The One who gave us this gift to write. We can prepare the best we can, but ultimately it is Him—not us—who determines the kind of success we will enjoy in our writing life.
I write within the mystery and thriller genres. I purposely became an indie author within the secular mainstream. I rarely stray beyond these genres just mentioned, although my ‘tween’ daughter is urging me to write a YA novel before she gets too old for that market. In this secular world of crime, cops and bad guys, my novels compete with authors who play by a different set of rules.
Can Christians fairly compete in this worldly market?
First and foremost, a writer must develop a certain writing proficiency or they will lose readers in the opening scene—regardless who they are. Once a writer has developed their craft and they are ready to publish, how do they entice readers to try their novels? Much of what I am going to write about here is a moot point if a writer stays within the conservative walls of the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association) market.
But what if they are called to venture beyond to the ABA (American Booksellers Association) market? This is where a gray area emerges that makes writing a real challenge. There are more than a few successful writers who feel no qualms about using various degrees of worldliness to reach their readers. Let’s just say their writing proclivities would never be condoned in the Christian fiction publishing world.
So, with that on the table, often writers in the secular market think that if they are going to be successful they must push the envelope. If they are going to be a contender, their writing recipe must be somewhat shocking. They perceive this elusive recipe for success to include: a liberal dash of profanity; a tablespoon of sadistic torture and mayhem; a cup or two of sweaty sex; and mix all that with a plot that promises to keep the reader turning pages until they drop from exhaustion.
Does this promise them a certain degree success if well written? Maybe. They might even feel that their chances of success are even less if they do not follow this path.
In the mystery and thriller genre, these three ingredients—profanity, graphic violence and sex—seemed to be key to many successful authors. I do not have to list them. Anyone who reads those genres knows those writers who are willing to go beyond the borders of what might be considered good taste.
And for those authors who don’t follow that path, they run the risk of facing criticism for shirking back from reality, for sugar-coating the way life really should be depicted. That their puritanical ways fail to capture life in all its unmasked beauty and ugliness in a way that holds true to the way life really is.
Author Stephen King penned a great book on writing titled On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, in which he writes:
If you substituted “Oh sugar!” for ‘Oh s—”you are breaking the unspoken contract that exists between writer and reader—your promise to express the truth of how people act and talk through the medium of a made-up story
Is that what writers like myself do—break the unspoken contract?
Language, sex and violence—as a believer—are issues that a Christian writer must grapple with while remaining within the boundaries of good taste. It would be simpler to just lay it all out there just as life exists—lewd, brutal, profane. Are we in jeopardy of breaking the unspoken contract if we chose not to write in that manner?
I think we do not have to walk down that path. That we can write in good taste and still meet the expectations of readers. Personally, I think it is more challenging—and more rewarding—for a writer to be able to present a realistic view of life without dragging the reader through the gutters to get there.
I struggled with these issues in my latest novel, Broken Allegiance (A Tom Kagan Novel) in which I describe the dark side of the gangster lifestyle that readers might never have witnessed in their normal lives. It is a fictional account based upon my experience as a police sergeant supervising a gang unit in a series of organize crime investigations involving murders, robberies, drug trafficking and the whole gamut of the gangster world. It would have been easy for me to allow the reader to get a good whiff of that world in all its ugliness. It became more challenging to paint their lives in a way that did not make readers want to go take a shower after experiencing this underworld while still holding true to my understanding of that world. I believe readers came away with a realistic view in a manner that did not cross the somewhat nebulous border of good taste. That I accomplished this and still fulfilled this unspoken contract with reader that King wrote about.
It is up to the readers to decide whether I honored that contract.
I have always enjoyed learning from my friend and writing mentor—bestselling author James Scott Bell—about the art and craft of writing. One of Jim’s articles for the popular blog, The Kill Zone, is titled “The Thrill of Sex with Cordite In the Air.” He wrote about using the reader’s imagination rather using explicit descriptions to bring the scene alive. In his discussion about sex scenes, Jim wrote:
You know what works better? The reader’s imagination. If you “close the door” but engage the imagination, it’s often more effective than what you describe in words. Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs—do you need words to know exactly what happens?
One of the best sex scenes ever written is in Madam Bovary, the carriage ride with Emma and Leon…All the description is from the driver’s POV, who cannot see into the carriage. Read it and see if you can do better with body parts and a thesaurus.
What a great expression—engage the imagination. I think writers can be successful without pushing the envelope by doing just that. For example, here are a few authors who are able to write within my comfort zone of good taste and still provide a successful and realistic novel:
Dean Koontz: Though I am not an avid horror fan, I will always pick up a novel by NYT bestselling author Dean Koontz. His writing is exquisite, and those ingredients I mentioned above rarely surface—particular the sex scenes. I am addicted to his Brother Odd series, and I read his novels very slowly so that I can enjoy the way Dean paints his scenes with just the right brush of words. There is always a spiritual element to his writing that I find intriguing.
James Scott Bell: Jim moved from the CBA to the ABA markets a few years ago and has been successful in both the traditional and indie publishing worlds. Whenever I pick up one of Jim’s novels, I know that I will not have to skim over inappropriate parts to get through the story. Always a good read, well crafted, and very clean.
John Lescroart: Another author I enjoy is NYT bestselling author John Lescroart. I particularly like a technique John uses to skirt profanity issues by using one of his likable characters—Abe Glinsky, a homicide inspector in the San Francisco Police Department. All the other characters in John’s novels—which center on a group of people in the law enforcement and court community—know that Glinksy hates profanity. They fear Glinsky’ s evil eye whenever they start to cut loose with inappropriate language and so they shy away from profane language. Or if they cut loose, Glinsky is there to given them the look.
These writers—and others—demonstrate that writers can exist within the secular market without venturing beyond the borders of decency and good taste.
So what are my aims as a believer in the secular market?
I know that my novels are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. But when a reader picks up one of my novels, they can expect a certain quality of good taste and a quality of writing that reflects that I have done everything I can do make it a novel worth reading.
What do I mean by good taste?
Stories in which violence will be kept to a minimum and used sparingly. There will not be vivid scenes of torture that leaves the reader sick to their stomach. Stories in which the hero and heroine keep their romance alive, but any sexual proclivities are kept behind closed doors and away from the reader’s prying eyes. Language that does not use the Lord’s name in vain but uses His name as part of a prayer or an utterance of adoration. Writing that I hope honors Him.
Finally, I want my readers to be able to relate to my characters, to feel their pain, their joy, their relief. For my readers to emerge on the other side with my main character arm-in-arm, experiencing that character’s sense of hope and purpose—if at all possible.
After all—crime is the grist of my stories. So, readers beware!
Mark Young is the bestselling author of three previous novels, Revenge (A Travis Mays Novel) and two Gerrit O’Rourke novels, Off the Grid and Fatal eMpulse. Prior to his full-time writing career, Young served as a police officer with the Santa Rosa Police Department in California for twenty-six years. Additionally, he was an award-winning journalist and a Vietnam combat veteran. He served with several law enforcement task force operations, including the presidential Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force targeting major drug traffickers, and the federal Organized Crime Task Force charged with identifying and prosecuting prison gang leaders. He lives in the Pacific Northwest with his family. Visit www.MarkYoungBooks.com to find out more about Mark and his writing.