Friday, October 28, 2011

Fear of Censorship

Publishing a novel can put the fear of God into a writer, particularly when the book addresses religious subject matter. When I conceived my novel, Glass Halo, I wanted to write about a priest because ordained men seem inherently interesting characters vested in mystery. My great-uncle was a monsignor; and as a cradle Catholic, all my life I’d known priests—not, of course, in the Biblical sense.

But in Glass Halo, my protagonist—Nora Kelley, a stained glass artisan—does come to know Father Vincent DiMarco in the Biblical sense. I never intended to debut with a bodice-ripper. I endeavored to write a book about vocation, conversion, and higher love.

In my original manuscript, lust between Nora and Vin went unconsummated. My literary agent had high hopes for my manuscript. Many editors expressed admiration for my style, but disliked my story, consistently complaining that my book lacked a pay-off. They wanted my characters to fall into the hotbed of fornication.

I held out. So did my supportive agent. But after several years and several dozen rejections from major publishing houses, she insisted that if I wanted to sell my book, I’d need to add sex to the mix.
           
I agreed that if I found a scene warranting the characters’ caving in to a taboo roll in the hay, I’d add carnal knowledge. But the dirty deed would need clear motivation.

I wrote a brief lovemaking scene that then required rewriting the last portion of my manuscript—not without trepidation. I feared selling out my original authorial intent. I feared the sex scene would shame me and anybody associated with me. I feared turned-on characters might turn off readers. I feared readers’ assumptions that I had coveted thy neighbor’s pastor.  And I feared trespassing on the Catholic Church’s moral high ground.

When editors wanted even more sex, I opted to publish independently. I never set out to emulate Anais Nin, but I decided to stick with my most recent draft, which seemed a stronger story.

To assure I hadn’t committed heresy, I consulted half a dozen “professional” Catholics. I enlisted as readers my pastor, a permanent deacon, a Jesuit priest, two monsignors, and a longtime consultant to the dioceses of the United States. All six readers assured me I hadn’t endangered my immortal soul. Nor was I setting a precedent: Graham Greene’s character had gone all the way. All my expert Catholic readers were men. Several gave me blurbs for my book jacket.

But, as I feared, when I submitted my book to the Catholic Fiction Writers’ Guild for their Seal of Approval, they rejected Glass Halo. These readers happened to be women. They thoughtfully commented on the literary quality of my writing and the “titillating” nature of my novel. Yet they could not recommend my title for Catholic bookstores.

Disappointed, I accepted their criticism, but decided against their advice to rewrite Glass Halo with a Church-approved ending and publish another edition. I discerned possibilities, but I feared a rewrite with my main characters reverting to hand-holding would never ring true. To retell the story would be bearing false witness because Nora and Vin had crossed the line. There was no going back on my words.

I opted instead to move ahead and focus on finishing my next novel, Only Wild Plums, which, I fear, contains its own strains of controversy.

But fiction reflects life, and life includes controversy. The title Glass Halo reminds readers that we humans fall into frailties. If we have haloes, they’re delicate as glass. I wanted my novel to present a priest as a human being fraught with all the complexities of most men. I drew characters sympathetic despite shortcomings.

Fear shackles Nora. She’s afraid of life, and with reason: She suffers post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from horrific domestic violence. She’s scared to love again; even frightened to work again, given that glass played a role in her shattered past.

Vin, too, wallows in fear—primarily fear of his primal instincts about Nora, not the first woman he’s drawn to despite his priestly vow of celibacy. Frustrated, Vin drowns his dread in alcohol, which only results in more anguish.

As the author of Glass Halo, my lingering fear is that I wrote a book too mainstream for some Catholics, and too Catholic for some of the mainstream. But in the end, Glass Halo garnered glowing reviews, was named a finalist for the 2010 Santa Fe Literary Prize, and taught me an indelible lesson: Publishing demands courage.

Glass Halo is available through FridayJonesPublishing.com, Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and bookstores everywhere. View the book trailer here and read an excerpt here.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Colleen Smith--based in Denver, Colorado—studied fiction and poetry writing in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her new book Laid-Back Skier offers a light-hearted look at alpine skiing and life’s ups and downs. She contributes regularly several publications and art-directs communications materials.

16 comments :

  1. Whew, this was a tough post for this poor, dyslexic reader to get through ... but if the last line is the main point, then I'm not getting it. Unless I was about to release a whistle-blowing tome on a mob boss, I'm not sure courage would figure in to a decision to publish. None-the-less, congrats on your books!

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  2. Colleen wrote the post en route to Florida on the airplane. I posted it at midnight upon returning home from my trip. There is a daily post at the Blood-Red Pencil, Christopher, and not all perfick. Does this back story make us more forgivable? Publishing something daily is very hard work, some days tougher than others.

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  3. Publishing does take courage. So does writing. Some days more than others. Well done, Colleen. I'm not a Catholic, but Father Andrew Greeley's novels have always been favourites of mine.

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  4. Bravo, Colleen! Yes, publishing does indeed demand courage. And life abounds with controversy, frailty, intensity, and reality. Your willingness to let your characters be true to themselves rather than shove them into a sterile box speaks volumes about you as a writer. Great post! As soon as time permits, I plan to buy and read your book. It sounds like a story from the heart, and those are my favorites.

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  5. Thanks Colleen. We tend to think it takes bravery to approach agents, but once you sign with one, it's easy going from there. But it definitely took bravery to change your book and take it in a direction you hadn't initially thought about - and then to stick to the new version even at a cost of sales.

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  6. Colleen, your story resonated with me on several levels. First your reluctance to follow the advice you received to add the sex scene just because that is what sells. I faced a similar push in my suspense novel, One Small Victory, but I prevailed. Not sure if that hurt sales or not.

    Also, as a Catholic, wife of a permanent deacon, and a chaplain, I have been asked many times how I justify some of the things I write about with my religion. I don't think one should hold back on what is true for our stories and characters because of religious beliefs or any other reason. Those are just characters, not us.

    Christopher, I'm glad you persevered through the long post. It was more than what we usually post, but well worth the read.

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  7. Thank you, Blood-Red Pencil, for including me. Thank you, Dani, for burning midnight oil on behalf of my piece.
    Christopher, sorry to tax you. Thanks for reading to the end. (I think I was within the word count given me.)
    Elspeth, I also enjoyed Father Andrew Greeley's books. Talk about courage! As a priest, he must've caught some flak over his novels.
    Linda, I hope you'll enjoy "Glass Halo." You are so right: This story came from my heart.
    Helen, you make a great point that it takes courage to approach agents. I'm in that phase again now, looking for an agent for my 2nd novel.
    Maryann, your comment comforts me, especially since you're married to a permanent deacon. I appreciate your point about distinguishing between the writer and the character.
    Thanks, everybody, for reading, and for writing a comment. Wag your tale! ~ Colleen Smith

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  8. Colleen,
    I'm not Catholic nor will I ever write about one, but I wrote a novel that was a spiritual journey specific to my character's world, and as such have worried: is it too spiritual? Not religious enough? I had sex in it but removed it because it felt gratuitous to her character arc--it's not a romance--but a top editor at Harlequin once told me if I made it a romance she could sell a lot of copies. It's really hard to stick to your guns when so many professionals are tugging you in different directions! Thanks for your story.

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  9. Kathryn, thanks for your comment. Yes, the advice from "professionals" tends to confuse me. A lot. =(

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  10. I'm so glad you stuck to your guns and published independently. It just proves that publishers don't know everything.

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  11. I really liked your post, Colleen. I can identify with your struggle with balancing the forces of pandering to publishers and the public against your authenticity as an author. I also write novels that muddle boundaries--maybe too Jewish for many mainstream readers but not orthodox enough for the dedicated Jewish constituency. And what I write often challenges stereotypes and conventional beliefs and assumptions.

    I love your title and laud your persistence. From strength to strength, as we say.

    --Larry Constantine
    (Lior Samson, novelist

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  12. Martin, thank you for your support and your comment.

    Larry, what a beautiful phrase: "from strength to strength." Also, I've always enjoyed the vicarious experience books provide by allowing us to step into other cultures: Catholic, Jewish, and countless others. And I believe writers ought to challenge stereotypes. Two strong words in your comment: "pandering" and "authenticity" well define the extremes of the spectrum.
    Thank you for your comment. Shalom!

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  13. A follow-up to Dani: No need to justify ... I completely understand the rigors of blog-posting ... which is why I only do it once a week ... and then have to rest for 7 days. Anyway, I appreciate what you all do here at the BRP ... good on you and Colleen!

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  14. It doesn't take courage to write your book by committee and by your fear of what others will think. It takes courage to write the book you need to write in the way it needs to be written, no matter what.

    And, romance writers and readers consider the term "bodice ripper" to be the "N" word of romance because it is so insulting. It also shows that the person who has used it hasn't read a romance in thirty years or at all.

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  15. Colleen, the problem with some professionals at publishing houses is that it is no longer about the stories, it is about marketing. How can we sell this? Oh, if it had more sex or more violence we could find a market.

    I remember a long time ago a top editor in NY was lamenting the changes in her house. She said she could no longer fall in love with a book and push it through to publication. Now a marketing board had to approve it, and if they could not find an "angle" to publicize it, or it did not fit the established market paradigm, they weren't interested.

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  16. Marilynn, you're right: I do not read romances. But I did not mean to offend you, particularly to the degree that you indicate I did. I apologize for my ignorance.
    Maryann, my agent told me something similar about marketing thrust in publishing houses today. Sad for more "quiet" stories with merits. =(
    I don't need a lot of sex in books or want a lot of violence in my reading: just shining writing and memorable characters. I'm more about the literary novel and don't care as much about plot. I used to joke that high drama in one of my novels involves two people making eye contact across a room. LOL!

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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