“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” ~ Bill Cosby
More than a decade ago, I thought I had what it takes to be a writer. I had studied English, with an emphasis on creative writing, at a liberal arts university in the Heartland. I went on to hone my craft for several years, writing — but never publishing — several short stories. And after starting and stopping a couple of novel-length manuscripts, I decided it was time to take the plunge.
If you’re a frequent visitor to the Confabulator Cafe or my blog, The Creativity Well, you’ve probably heard me mention my not-so-great first novel, and how I never found someone to publish it. Today, you’re going to understand why it remains unpublished.
You see, back in 1997 — when I decided to write my magnum opus — I fancied myself to be the next Stephen King. And the novel I wanted to write was not dissimilar to King’s great doorstop-of-a-novel, The Stand. My manuscript, tentatively titled Devotion, had a huge cast of characters from all walks of life, coming together to confront a great evil in a small town in rural Kansas.
One thing set my novel apart from The Stand, and set me apart from King: religion. I’m not just talking about abstract concepts of good and evil. I’m talking about organized religion, and my very conservative Christian upbringing.
You see, at that point in my life, I wanted to be the Stephen King of Christian publishing. I thought I could write a novel that — like the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins — would have a message for Christians. And it would be the kind of novel that would make my parents proud.
As I wrote Devotion, I discovered a couple of things.
First, writing horror for a Christian audience is difficult. There’s a fine line between scaring the reader and offending him or her. King never cares if his audience would be offended by a tirade of F-bombs or graphic depictions of sex or violence. His audience doesn’t care. No one reads a Stephen King novel and is shocked to find it gruesome or disturbing. A Christian audience, however, is going to judge pretty harshly if the story has a preacher disemboweling a young boy.
The next thing I learned was that I didn’t really know what my philosophical or theological beliefs were. I knew what my parents believed. I knew what my church taught. I could rattle off Bible verses with the best of them. But until I started writing Devotion, I never really thought about whether or not what I had been taught meshed with my view of the world.
The story was a struggle between good and evil, with people at the center of the story. Satan was the big bad guy, but rarely seen. I utilized a premillennialist pastor as the human face of evil. He was the antagonist to another preacher who wasn’t connected with any church. The good preacher, Jonah, was my conscience for the story. And Jonah’s views didn’t always correspond with the teachings I grew up with.
And that’s where things fell apart for me. I was writing a book to be read by very conservative Christians (my parents included). But I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a part of that audience anymore.
In the end, Devotion had some serious problems. There were too many characters, and a lot of head-hopping. (I hadn’t learned to stick with a single point-of-view yet.) It was also horribly cliche, because I had yet to learn to avoid many of the common pitfalls writers face.
But the bigger problem was that I had been determined to write a novel that would make my parents proud. Instead of being true to what I wanted to say, the story’s message tried to please someone else. I tried to write for my parents and other Christian readers (hoping my books would be the next Left Behind publishing phenomenon). But as I wrote, I decided I wanted to write a book that talked about my beliefs — even as I worked to discover what those were.
It’s not surprising Devotion failed. It couldn’t be a Christian novel, a horror novel, and a novel that detailed my own unique beliefs. By trying to please everyone, I ended up with a manuscript that didn’t please anyone.
Could the manuscript be fixed? Sure. As Winston Zeddemore said in Ghostbusters, “We have the tools. We have the talent.”
Even so, it would take a lot of work. I’m not exaggerating when I say there are problems starting with the opening scene.
It’s been over a decade since I last touched it. I am no longer the man who wrote Devotion. My point of view about the world has changed. My beliefs have changed. I have changed. And my parents both passed away before I could get anything published.
So I’ve moved on. I’m writing for myself now.