Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Religious Mythology

I've got a question. My YA novel revolves around some biblical mythology, i.e., angels, Michael and Lucifer, Armageddon. You know, stuff like that. But it isn't a religious novel by any means. Essentially it is taking that mythology and completely twisting it and taking a fresh spin on it. But I'm afraid that agents are going to read my query letter and automatically think it is a religious novel and therefore they won't touch it with a ten foot pole. What is the best way to off-set that presumption?

While in an earlier blog post I suggested that if a writer was basing a book on a classic she should definitely go ahead and tell agents that, I’m not sure I would give the same advice to a writer basing a book on biblical mythology, and it’s for the very reason the author suggests. Do you risk turning some agents off who might assume it’s a religious novel? You do. Absolutely you do.

Religion is a tricky subject no matter which way you look at it. Basing a book on biblical mythology can turn off the non-religious who would automatically feel the book might have religious overtones they aren’t interested in, and it could offend the devoutly religious depending on your take on it. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t use biblical mythology, they are some of the best good v. evil stories out there. I’m just suggesting that instead of focusing your query on where the idea came from, maybe you should just focus it on the book itself and let your readers make their own judgments about where the idea came from.

There are no real original stories out there and many books are based on the Bible. What makes a story unique is the execution and how you take that story that we all know so well and make it feel like something we’ve never heard before.

However, all that being said, what I would like you to do is instead of looking at how people might feel about the religious beginnings of your book, I’d like you to trust your gut. If something doesn’t sit right, if it feels forced or if you worry that it’s going to give cause for rejection, then you need to do what your gut says. We all know a gut can be wrong, but do we want to spend months questioning later whether or not we would have been better off leaving that information out?



Anonymous said...

You are too kind. Tell the writer the truth. The idea sucks.

Anonymous said...

If James Patterson can have a YA series with winged children (angels) then I don't think OP concept is too religious. Lots of books are based in good vs. evil. It's not like you're trying to convert someone to Christianity in the text, you are telling a story. It sounds more dystopian (end of life as we know it) than it does Noah's Ark.

Also, Anon 8:38, I hope this book gets published and becomes a bestseller just to spite you.

Anonymous said...

Whoa! The idea doesn't suck and it's a good question. My own novel is based on Christian and Jewish mythologies, sort of Dante meets the Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, and it is not a religious novel.

The unfortunate thing is that while some people babble about what open minds they have, they completely shut down on certain topics. There are writers who are able to divorce themselves from the religious connotations of Biblical lore and can present or reconfigure the entire scheme on a new level. Likewise, there are others who write novels that positively drip with religious overtones.

I look at it this way: if an agent automatically sees Christian themes and shuts down on my work, what’s going to prevent the same agent from shutting down when I present my next work which might encompass Buddhism or Taoism or even Wicca?

I would hope, and do believe optimist that I am, that most agents would be able to divorce themselves from their own prejudices to examine the work as a whole. I think Jessica gave excellent advice: it’s about the characters and their stories. That is what your query letter should focus on, because that is what will eventually sell your novel. Then research your agent and go with your gut as to how much to tell that particular agent.

Mira said...

I agree with this post, I think it's very good practical advice. I also like what you said, frohock.

In many ways, queries are like resumes. You want to be really careful not to give someone - a stranger - a reason to pass you over.

You don't know who the agent is, and how they'll react. It's good to get your foot in the door based on the story itself. Well, I really think I'm just repeating what Jessica said - guess I agree with it.

jbstanley said...

I too think the idea is a good one. I'd humbly suggest to pitch your book based on its overarching themes of fantasy/epic struggle and mention the biblical themes as examples of how you'll bring those themes to life.

I have been where you are right now. Jessica pitched a mystery series for me based on a religious group (a bible study group). Because she packaged the pitch as a mystery with a church group theme, the editors of more than one publishing house were able to see the sales appeal of the idea. The happy ending is that the first book of the series will hit the shelves in December of this year.

Don't be afraid to write your book how you want, no, how you NEED to write it. If the book is presented properly, religious themes should not hold you back. Best of luck!

Christina said...

I have read that one of the biggest trends in queries right now is Angels.

And in honesty, how are Angels and Demons any different than Vampires or Werewolves for literary purposes?

I don't see why Angels in a fantasy setting should be construde as anything more religious than any other mythical being. But hey that's just me.

I agree that it is about the characters and the story itself - so hopefully the story will shine through.

Anonymous said...

I'm currently revising my YA novel with similar themes, and again, it's not in the slightest bit religious, despite the angels and demons.

I see my story as a paranormal romance, and that's how I'll be pitching it. I'll focus on the conflict, the characters, the plot and all the things that make it what it is, religion doesn't come into it.

I think that these days, in my opinion anyway, angels and demons have become used as mythological creatures in the same way vampires, werewolves, ghosts, fey etc have been.

If you think of it in that way and are matter of fact about it and pitch them for WHO they are over WHAT they are, then it should make a difference.

I sure hope so anyway, this ones played on my mind too! But I wrote the book I had to write, I couldn't not write it, whether or not I thought anyone would publish it. That's good enough for me.

Anonymous said...

LOL Christina, we must have posted pretty much the same thing at pretty much the same time :D

Christina said...

Wendy: Jinx! :D Great minds.

Kimber Li said...

Hey, if George Lucus can do it and make bazillions, so can you. By that, I mean incorporate or be inspired by religion. Read A HERO WITH A THOUSAND FACES by, um, whathisname. I believe all human beings are spiritual beings, whether they belong to an organized religion or not. This is why so many world mythologies have similar elements. I think it's a good idea to keep this in mind when writing a story, whether it has any smacking of religion or not.

Liana Brooks said...

A lot of books use biblical names and ideas. What they don't do is say they are Biblical mythology. That tends to sit wrong with various people.

They just use the names, tell the story, and if you happen to know that Lucifer is a Biblical name you get the tie-in. If not, it's still a good story.

Anonymous said...

There are a few urban fantasy series that feature a succubus protagonist, such as Jackie Kessler's wonderful HELL'S BELLES, etc. You've got Hell, you've got demons, and you've got the Devil/King Lucifer and God/the Almighty (per Kessler's world). These are Christian themes, but these books aren't presented as religious in any way. So I think it's a matter of presenting your idea as a fantasy, as others have suggested. Good luck! Sounds like an interesting premise.

Anonymous said...

"...pitch your book based on its overarching themes of fantasy/epic struggle and mention the biblical themes as examples of how you'll bring those themes to life."

Now I'm confused. I've read on agent blogs that you don't discuss themes. You pitch a story, and that's that. So... which is it??

Anonymous said...

This was my question actually. I wrote a paranormal romance that revolves around my heroine and the events that befall her after she dies and crosses over – a big time roller coaster ride as you might imagine.

Anyway, in my query I categorized it as a paranormal romance. There was nothing mentioned about biblical mythology or Christian traditions or anything even remotely related to it. However the story is about Purgatory, Angels, Demons, and an afterlife, which are all mentioned in the query. And it seemed to me that the minute a book has any sort of religious aspect to it, no matter how slight, it becomes taboo (unless it is controversial and then it becomes a hot commodity.) and I wanted to know if this was going to be a problem.

But thank you for answering my question Jessica, and to the rest of you for your honest input. Its been invaluable.

BookEnds, A Literary Agency said...

Anon 11:47:

I would agree that it's better to pitch your story and never themes.

Anon 11:59: I hope I answered your question. I will tell you that recently I sold a book based on the themes of Heaven, Eden, Hell, etc. At no time did we mention any of that. That was simply the way the author came to the idea, but ultimately those were not the words used in the book.


Rain Likely said...

In response to "the idea sucks" may I point out the movie "Dogma."

Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, big hit, millions of dollars, 'nuff said.

Anonymous said...

Jessica: Yes you did.:D Yeah my story is not solely based around the biblical mythology. They are merely background themes to a grander paranormal romance, which means it is not necessary to mention it when pitching the novel. Thanks for the good piece of advice.

Mira said...

Anon 11:59

Good luck! I hope it goes well with your book. :-)

Kristin Laughtin said...

There's a huge difference between a Christian novel, a novel that maybe has some Christian themes or over/undertones (but not enough to be categorized as Christian fiction), and novels that just incorporate some elements found in Christianity. It sounds like your novel fits in the third category. Just pitch it like you would any other story.

(I'm glad this came up--my stories sometimes veer toward the second category but are still predominantly secular, and I'm going to have to be very careful crafting my queries.)

Since query letters sometimes sound like back cover copy, maybe try looking at books with similar themes. Jay Lake's MAINSPRING comes to mind--it's housed in the general science fiction section, but is all about a man on a quest from the archangel Gabriel. While there are many elements of faith, purpose, etc., in the book, it's not what anyone would classify as a religious novel. Just a novel with religious elements.

Anonymous said...

Mira: Thanks! Me too.

ChristFocus said...

Before criticizing "close minded" Christians, you might want to consider that, to us, the Bible is true history and not "mythology." You can get away with changing things in religions that are no longer practiced, but you're bound to offend someone if you change the "mythology" of any of the current major world religions.

After all, it feels like the author is implying that the Bible/holy book(s) got the real story wrong or that the author thinks what the religion teaches is so insignificant and untrue that it doesn't matter how it's told, which can be a bit insulting.

My question is "if you aren't going to follow the Bible's information, why can't you just make your own names for the story?" As in, why use Michael, Lucifer, and Armageddon at all?

A number of authors have used winged beings or created end-of-the-world scenarios without linking them directly into Biblical names and themes. This avoids turning off those who think the story must be religious if it uses Biblical names or those who don't like incorrectly portrayed Biblical figures. Just a suggestion.

Ryan S. Kinsgrove said...

I would like to agree with just about everybody here. And, a lot of you have actually said in one way or another what I'm going to say.

In On Writing Stephen King preaches that the story should stand out above everything when it comes to writing. The story is the boss even when it comes to writing the query letter. You should write what you feel you need to write.

And, with the whole religious themes, look at the success of many other people writing along those same guidelines. Sherrilyn Kenyon uses Greek mythology to great effect, James Patterson used children with wings, the Left Behind series. As well as most of King's work (Carrie, Salem's Lot, The Stand, and The Mist spring to mind). So, you need to do what you need to do. You'll feel better about it.

Jeanne Ryan said...

When people tend to think about religion, two things come to mind--morality and ritual and these things turn off many people, especially after 8 years of the Religious Right being in control. The Bible, Christianity and Christian history are so much more than that. One of the most popular stories that uses Christianity is something many people didn't even know it did--the Matrix. It is a modern adaptation of gnostic christian mythology.

If you are using elements from Christian mythology, like Nalini Singh did with Angel's Blood or Jim Butcher did with Small Favors, both NYTimes Bestsellers, then I'd say leave it off.

But I wouldn't say these completely "twists it and takes a fresh spin." frohock mentions Dante. There is someone who twisted Lucifer and took a fresh spin. If you truly twist things, the current buzz word is "reimagine."

By referring to Biblical "mythology," you are already saying it isn't a religious book. A religious book wouldn't refer to anything in the Bible as mythology.

In my opinion the important thing isn't to tailor things to make your query more appealing to agents. It is to give the best representation of your book, so they can make an educated decision. If you just use the elements from Christian Mythology, (be careful saying it is biblical. Much of our conception of these things comes from other sources) leave it out or compare how you use it to books like I mentioned above. That is one way to make sure they realize it isn't religious.

If you truly twist things, I'd make sure the agent knows this. It could be a selling point for the right agent. Heresy sells. It may turn off some people, but it will attract others.

It just depends what is the most accurate representation of your book. Agents hate surprises.

Gumbo Writers said...

Query letters can be tough. I think this is great advice, Jessica. While it's obviously not a good idea to lie in your query letter it is sometimes best to leave out controversial themes when presenting the novel. It might also be a good idea to "re-brand" the theme into something a little more undisputed - perhaps good verses evil.

The Swivet said...

The entire Kushiel series by Jacqueline Carey is just a reworking of the Judeo-Christian mythos. Faith Hunter also wrote a great urban fantasy trilogy about Armageddon (literally). It can be done as long as the morals are left out of the story.

What tends to turn off agents who don't represent faith-based fiction is that the more faith there is in the book, the more the sales will be slanted toward the CBA marketplace, which is an marketplace that requires its own particular expertise. There are plenty of great agents who do rep faith-based fiction; I refer writers to them all the time.

Christina said...

I can understand that faith-based fiction has its own agents and publishers. A specialized genre.

But what if agents automatically assume that a novel is faith-based fiction because it has Angels and other religion based mythologies? Do agents tend to jump to that conclusion?

The Swivet said...

I personally don't assume that because every other YA and fantasy novel I see these days has angels in it. I think most agents can tell from a well-written query whether or not it is faith-based fiction, which is why I have a list at hand of great Christian agents to whom I can refer writers.

Anonymous said...

A lot of writers attempt to exploit religion in a deliberate attempt to generate controversy, ala D. Brown. they WANT to piss people off, but surely this tack can backfire. It's also somewhat tired by now.

But religion will always be mined for material.

Anonymous said...

Therein lies another question (although this has nothing to do with my own novel). And I suppose the answer depends on the agent and the novel itself. But do agents tend to shy away from controversial topics? Especially if they can foresee a sizable backlash from the public - ie. The Dark Materials Trilogy or The DaVinci Code. Or are they more willing to take on the challenge simply because of the built-in attention that will come with it?

Mira said...

That's a really good question, Anon.

I've wondered the same thing. Is controversy good or bad - from the perspective of an agent.

Gilbert J. Avila said...

Religion can be mined for humorous effect. Pratchett and Gaiman's "Good Omens" is a perfect example. It's Armageddon gone wrong. The Antichrist is born, but in the hospital he's accidentally switched at birth with another baby and is raised by a loving family, whereas the Satanists are wondering why their kid isn't picking up on the evil stuff. Also in the mix are the angel and demon who were in the Garden of Eden, who are working together to sabotage Armageddon because they like the world as it is. A friend of mine read the book on a transatlantic flight and was laughing so hard that passengers complained to the flight attendants.

Iko of the Shadows said...

There seems to be a great deal of urban fantasy with demons and the occational angel, while alternative world fantasy uses demons like they were going out of style.

In fact, it's sometimes difficult to find alt-world fantasy that doesn't borrow from Christian mythology. The Black Jewels trilogy has main character named Seatan, Deamonic, and Lucifer for no reason whatsoever, and the setting Kushiel's Dart series is based on Jesus having a child with Mary Magdeline who ends up founding a nation where everyone is beautiful, bisexual, and practises free love.

I think this is far less of a problem than the author believes it to be.