Saturday, April 2, 2011

"The Strange Man" Commentary (Part III)

Still with us? If you've yet to read Part 1 and Part II of my commentary of The Strange Man, check 'em out! We've only got one more after this and you'll have a complete set. Many deep theological issues in this installment! Read on, but be ye warned: SPOILERS AHEAD!

Page 145--Chapter Fourteen. Dras finally comes face to face with the Strange Man. This is another scene that I kinda have to squint at to get through sometimes. This is a very, very old scene. Maybe I’m just harder on my past self.

This also brings us to Dras' status as a "Christian". Dras said a prayer when he was at a summer church camp (like many “church kids” do), but I never intended to close the case there. Was he "saved" this whole time? Was he "backslidden" in his faith or did he never have a genuine conversion to begin with? The validity of Dras’ conversion experience at age nine is intentionally vague. I don't think that's really important. The important thing is that his experience with the Strange Man brings him before God in humility and honesty. Whatever his past, NOW he has had a major life-altering conversion--this experience leads him to a real, tangible faith in Christ.

Page 159--Chapter Fifteen. Brand new scene for Realms. I wanted to establish the “rules” of fighting demons with the power of God. In the Xulon Edition, Dras is visited by the Strange Man and then the next scene he’s preaching at Rosalyn. It’s like he makes this automatic leap to deduce that she “needs Jesus”. I wanted to slow it down a bit and show how he makes that conclusion. Plus, it gives me an opportunity to flirt with the idea of him as a traditional monster hunter, with crosses and garlic and wooden stakes. I love monster hunters and try to work them--or types of monster hunters--into The Coming Evil whenever I can, but Dras realizes that this situation calls for something deeper than that. He’s got a war to fight, yes, but a war of the heart rather than one of silver bullets and holy water.

This leads to a conundrum in this series. I make no qualms about talking about Christianity, Christ, the Bible, whatever. I can see it being labeled as "preachy", and while, yeah, I believe this stuff, I'm not trying to preach all the time. In my head, when I hear Dras say "Rosalyn, only Jesus can protect you from the Strange Man!", it's the equivalent of "Rosalyn, only a silver bullet will kill the werewolf!" Again, that's how I hear it. That's how I'm trying to approach it. This is a book about Christians--about using the Christian faith as a weapon to slay a monster. It's practical and directly related to the plot and to the "mythology" of my fictional world. Yes, of course, the monsters in The Strange Man are symbols of "monsters" in our own life, and, yes, of course, I think that those same Biblical principles and a faith in Christ can equip you to combat them. So, maybe I'm wanting to eat my cake and have it too. It's a balance I'm trying to perfect in my writing.

Page 161--The First “Witnessing” Attempt. Here we go. Time to separate the men from the boys. When writing this, I always thought this was going to be the divisive scene (little did I know it would actually be the Lindsey scene that was so controversial). Up until this point, this book’s been pretty light on the “religion” angle--a fun little tale about a screw-up fanboy and a demon in town. But here we break out the “evangelical Jesus-talk” and, no doubt, have lost some members of the audience as a result. I have agonized over this scene for years, knowing the negative reaction it would have on a lot of people, but I hope those who would be offended by this scene would take a closer look. While, on the surface, this seems to be the perfunctory “witnessing” scene that many criticize to be the markings of badly written Christian fiction--or thinly veiled Author trying to preach at the Audience--I actually wrote this scene as the anti-preaching scene.

I come from a very evangelical upbringing, complete with Wednesday night visitations where teams are sent door-to-door and essentially gangbust unsuspecting homes with the gospel. I have always found those situations uncomfortable--as someone doing the knocking, and for those people on the other side of the door who are just trying to enjoy their evening after work and are in no mood to deal with religious types. Look, it’s just an uncomfortable situation all around and usually ends up a lot like this scene. We’ve got people on the defensive, hurt feelings, a bunch of awkward shuffling, and usually the “witness” in the situation knows little more about the Bible than what Dras has spouted off here. Regardless if the words are true, it becomes a well-rehearsed “church” speech about “turning from sin and asking Jesus into your heart”. This scene isn’t against being a witness and sharing your faith, it’s against this approach. I don’t think this “canned gospel” approach works. I think it can work, sure. But, we live in a skeptic, grumbling, and critical generation that demands more from religion than nice words about “a loving God”. Dras comes to Rosalyn, rambling catchphrases he’s heard from years in church, but they don’t mean anything to him. And, therefore, they’re not going to mean anything to Rosalyn. He’s offering easy answers to tough questions, with very little understanding of those answers or the questions. If he really wants to reach Rosalyn with his message, he’s going to have to try a lot harder. He’s going to have to get off his high horse, and get in the mud.

To me, The Strange Man is not about "saving Rosalyn's soul". To me, the journey is about "Dras growing up".

However, in case this scene was too uncomfortable for those easily turned away by anything remotely "preachy", I kept Dras in his underwear to defuse the situation a bit :p

Page 173--Chapter Sixteen. Originally this scene with Dras and his dad ended when his dad woke up and said “Welcome home, son.” It was Brett Burner--publisher at Lamp Post Publication--who read this and said, “What? Where’s the rest of the scene? You cut it right before it got to the good stuff!” I realized he had a point, so I extended it to include the porch scene and I’m so glad I did. Jack and Jeff seem to be the ones with common ground, so to give Dras--who has felt isolated from his father for most of his life--a chance to get some real one-on-one time was very fulfilling to write.

My own dad is a cancer survivor. Jack’s cancer and how Dras deals with it was written at a time when I thought my own dad was going to die. I wasn’t quite sure how I felt about that or what I was supposed to feel. Dras’ thoughts mirror a lot of my own at that time, particular the ones where he’s worried about who will bail him out if he gets in over his head.

Page 180--Jack says, “Sometimes to serve the Lord, you’ve got to raise a little Cain.” Originally that said “raise a little hell”, but I see where that might be a bit taboo in the Christian Fiction market :p That almost made it to print, but was switched at the very last minute.

Page 181--Chapter Seventeen. We get a nice Jeff and Isabella scene before Jeff turns on “full jerk mode” and berates his brother. Jeff’s a mess. He’s up and he’s down. He’s an intense guy, really moody, and has a hard time reconciling what he knows he should do with what he wants to do. I think of all the characters in the series, I’ve struggled with Jeff the most, which is strange because he’s a lot like me. I’ve often said that Dras is me on a good day, whereas Jeff is me on a bad one. I think I had such a difficult time writing Jeff because I held back, for fear that my own insecurities and faults would become evident in Jeff’s behavior. It was only when I stopped holding back that he really came into his own. Honesty really is the best policy, even in fiction. I decided to go full steam ahead and show Jeff in all his conflicted nature and secret doubts. Hopefully he’ll come around in the sequel and get his head together. There’s monsters coming, man!

Page 189--Having Isabella be the one to come out and give Dras the tip he needed to fight the demon was important to me. Isabella is such a wallflower in this book, I wanted to give her something to do. Something vital to the narrative. Isabella comes into her own in a big, big way in Book Two.

Page 194--Here we reveal what’s been hiding in the shadows, snickering through the whole book.’s cute. I’m well aware that we’re dealing with important “spiritual matters”, here, but The Strange Man was always meant to be a fun Saturday matinee monster movie depiction of the Christian walk. I think it's essential to mix fun with fear to provide that release for the tension you're hopefully feeling. It’s all about creating a thrill ride. Besides, when you’ve got a thousand of these things spilling out of the shadows like cockroaches, they’re not so cute anymore :p

Page 201--The chapter at Smokey’s is a Realms Edition addition. I wanted more Earl, more good ole boy talk. Introduce Clancy. The Xulon Edition was focused on Dras and Rosalyn. I saw this as my chance to make this feel more like a world with people you know.

This chapter begins, what I call, “Gremlin Night”. The Xulon Edition all but skims over this sequence and when I was told that in order for The Strange Man to be accepted by a major publishing house I’d have to raise the word count, I immediately knew that I needed to beef up Gremlin Night. It was challenging, as I'm a firm believer in escalation from book to book. By this point, I had finished Book Two and nearly finished a first draft of Book Three. I knew the action in those books progressed and got more and more dynamic. So, I had to make Gremlin Night exciting and “high octane”, but not so high octane that it was on the same level as the crazy action set pieces in Book Two. It was a delicate balance, trying to figure out how to make this big, but not too big. I’m very, very happy with the results. Man, what I wouldn't give to see this as a movie.

Page 207--Dave at the video store, oblivious to Gremlin Night, was a last minute addition. Again, I wanted to keep the tension running high, but also have some laughs. This is a monster movie (albeit in printed form)! It’s supposed to be fun!

Page 226--The Strange Man rocking Millie is just downright creepy. If I didn’t know how this story was going to play out, I’d be really uncomfortable right about now :p

Page 231--Dras’ fistfight with the Strange Man was actually kind of tricky to write. I wanted to show that Dras was a fighter now, in spirit if not in physical ability. I didn’t want him to bust out the Chuck Norris moves--this is still an out-of-shape couch potato. So, he had to be active and engaged in this fight, but still clumsy. Also, I wanted to ground his bravado in his fear for Rosalyn. Ultimately, The Strange Man is a love story, and this is Dras’ chance to defend the woman in his life. The scene’s also tricky because the Strange Man’s not really a brawler. I always pictured him as above that. He’d just kill you or have his gremlins do it, but I think, by this point, he’s toying with Dras and by lowering himself to a fist fight, he’s letting Dras think he’s got a real shot at defeating the demon.

Page 232--Here’s another case of “questionable theology” that some have commented on. I’ve got Dras with the upperhand until he shows a moment of doubt. In that moment, his “power” seems to vanish and the demon grows stronger. Now, some have said I’m walking a thin line here. Am I saying that our power over Satan is dependent upon our level of faith? Or do I believe that God’s power is sufficient to protect us, even in our moments of disbelief? I think that’s a really good question, and I don’t know if I have a cut-and-dry answer for that. I know that, in my own life, when I give in to my worries and my fears, those fears grow larger in my life. Are they really growing larger, or is it just my perception of them? Am I making those giants stronger when I fear them? Is Dras giving the Strange Man power over him by fearing him? Much like the question regarding Lindsey’s salvation, I leave that to the Reader to mull over on their own.

The practical reasoning for this scene goes back to simple story mechanics. I’m writing a story about a guy using faith as a weapon to fight a demon. Weaponizing faith is hard. It’s easy to make it all-powerful. Wave your hand, say a prayer, quote a Scripture and boom! Demon no more! But then there’s no drama in your story, either. Adding the “fear clause” in the faith-as-a-weapon concept provided an opportunity for Dras to lose the battle. Now there’s threat, now there’s drama. It’s not a simple case of saying a magic prayer to stop the monster--you’ve got to back it up with unwavering faith, which is a lot harder to do than to say...and even then, sometimes that’s not enough. It’s a war; there are no simple solutions, and the road to becoming a Jedi Master is long and painful.

Well, folks, we've only got one more section to go. Read on for Part IV where we reach our finale! In the meantime, after all this talk of theology, I'm exhausted. Time to pop in some episodes of The Lone Gunmen.


교인애 Inae Kyo said...

I've been reading 'The Strange Man', it reads like prime Stephen King without the compulsive swearing.

Having Dras in his underpants during the witnessing scene helps. It was a very uncomfortable scene for me, that witnessing approach to me comes across as the witnesser taking a spiritually arrogant approach--- 'I'm the properly saved person, you're the lowly unregenerate Catholic'.

It's hard to take this the way we take the werewolves/silver bullets thing, because we know that the 'you need Jesus' IS something people really believe.

But after reading the commentary I'm understanding better what you are trying to do. I really love this book and can't wait to finish it.

Greg Mitchell said...

Thanks for reading, Inae. And, you're right, it IS an uncomfortable scene, for all the reasons I talked about in the blog. If it makes you feel any better, it makes ME uncomfortable, too, ha ha, but that's what I'm going for. So maybe I succeeded? :p Anyway, it's uncomfortable in real life, too, when this approach is taken for the reason you pointed out. There's got to be a way to share our faith without coming across as arrogant. That's Dras' journey, but it's mine, as well. We're all a work in progress.

I hope you enjoy the rest of the book :) And thanks for the Stephen King comparison! If ONLY I could be as good one day!