Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Where Did Realm Makers Come From?

Image Credit: Dog Eared Design, Kirk DouPonce
At the header for this blog, the graphic reads "Author-Artist-Ringleader," and for some of the folks who stop by, the "ringleader" part is a bit of a puzzlement. I thought today that I would shed some light on the reason people attach words like that (or nerd-herder) to me.

A little over 5 years ago, I started planning this thing called the Realm Makers Conference. It came into being because of several factors that exist in the publishing world that make it difficult for Christians who write fantasy and science fiction to find publishers for their work.

On the general market side--that means the Big Publishing Houses of New York, stories that center on traditional values are often passed over as "been there, done that" at best, or "dangerously misogynistic/insensitive/out-of-touch" in more critical scenarios. This climate  has only gotten worse over the decade I've been following publishing. In this past year, I have learned of multiple scenarios where the author's failure to include significant characters that promote ideals counter to Judeo-Christian values has proven grounds for rejection. Authors need to be on the lookout for anything that might be construed as tokenism, exploitation, cultural appropriation, and a whole other host of parameters that will send the red flag flying.

Now, understand, that I completely agree that no group of people should be treated like a gimmick. What could be more counter to the teachings of Christ? But for fiction to be forced to include a certain recipe of character types and concepts, and only cast those in the prescribed light, is poison to creativity at its core.

On the Christian market side, the speculative fiction writer has an uphill climb as well, although I must say, the publishing options in the CBA have grown a little since Realm Makers began. We're nowhere near having enough publishing homes for the number of fabulous manuscripts out there, but incremental progress does seem to be happening. The main obstacle Christian Speculative writers face is general Evangelical suspicion of the genre. This is the factor I see chipping away. We have a long way to go, and we have our own content wars on the Christian side of the fence. We battle over cleanliness in fiction, inclusion of magic, the core definition of "Christian Fiction," and more.

The other challenge for Christian publishing has always been wide distribution of books. This is actually looking a little more grim of late, given the failure of independent bookstores and the disappearance of even large Christian bookstore chains. Add to that the publishers who are rumored to be closing their doors to fiction altogether, and you've got an uncertain future for CBA speculative fiction.

So, as you can see, the Christian who writes "weird stuff" is still between a rock and a hard place. In addition to the publishing climate being turbulent, Christians face a lot of snide looks, if not downright insults, when interacting with the marketplace at sci-fi/fantasy/comic conventions and other places they seek to connect with readers. The sad part is that the loudest voices don't typically represent the largest populations.

These factors prompted me to begin Realm Makers, a writers conference with several core goals:
1. Educate Christian writers so their craftsmanship would rival the "big names" in the general market.
2. Connect writers who are ready for publication with industry individuals who can bring their books to market
3. Equip Christians to innovate and pioneer in order to find routes for great fiction to get to market
4. Build a community of creative contemporaries who support one another through the challenges of being makers of fantastic, but often misunderstood, stuff. This community atmosphere where everyone's voice could be heard without fear of slap-down or disrespect was a fundamental value at the root of what Realm Makers does.

God has truly blessed the Realm Makers effort beyond what I imagined it could be, and for our 5th anniversary conference, we have already surpassed our attendee numbers by leaps and bounds. I am grateful we've been able to take this "Little Conference that Could" (to quote Mike Duran) and build it into a vibrant, year-round encouragement to like-minded creators whose faith infuses everything they make.

But as we grow, the spectrum of voices becomes wider within our community, which is a good thing. Sometimes the newer community voices don't know the history of what Realm Makers has aspired to do, all along, and that's what compelled me to write this post. First and foremost, I want Realm Makers to be a place where creativity flourishes, because no one feels they need to defend the majors of their worldview: the existence of God and the redeeming work of his Son, Jesus Christ. Beyond the tenets of our faith, however, I sincerely hope Realm Makers continues for us to be a think tank where we can lovingly discuss the challenges of the publishing landscape, whether our authors choose CBA, ABA, or self publishing.

Overall, our goal is to see great books that shine a light on who God is reach the hands of readers. When I stand in judgment, some day either soon or far, it is my prayer that the Lord will be able to say to me of my Realm Makers efforts, "Well done, good and faithful servant."

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Melancholy, My Dad, and the Charcoal Tree

When you're like me, and you lost your dad at 13, it's easy to romanticize how you perceive a man who's been gone for the vast majority of your life. I like to remember the Marine, the idealist, the brilliant man my dad was, even though he was also an alcoholic, a child abuse victim, and ultimately lifestyled himself to death until he left my mom with 6 kids and no real career to support us. I didn't learn much from my dad, sadly, because I was too young at the time to tap the brilliance part, while we still had him.

He did, however, one afternoon in our smoky, cluttered 80s living room, teach me how to draw a tree.

My dad was a charcoal artist who never pursued honing his gift outside of high school. Probably not a lot of opportunities to draw still life or models while drill instructing on Parris Island, I'm assuming. But I can't count the number of times he sat in his kind-of-gross recliner and told me how he drew a series of beautiful nudes during art lessons as a teen that mysteriously disappeared. (I think his running suspicion was that his instructor made off with them. Oddly, I lost one of my favorite drawings in high school the same way, but it was a cat.) Art clearly remained in his bones, even if life had pushed it aside.

Anyway, my dad gave me this impromptu lesson with a number 2 pencil and a scrap of whatever paper was sitting atop the clutter. He flicked the pencil over the paper, using the side of the lead, and said, "Trees, grow from the ground up, so draw them that way." I think he was trying to break my of the childhood habit of making a bumpy lump and sticking a trunk under it.

But I watched, fascinated by the way his seeming haphazard flicks of that pencil slowly fused together to form branches, reaching twigs, and a sturdy trunk. And how mere scribbles overtop approximated leaves so generally, yet perfectly.

There's a sort of pall hanging over me this month--call it a collection of political frustration, lingering burnout after finishing a large client project, and gray weather malaise, but I've found my mind lingering in melancholy, and for the past few days, art has been . . . awful. Stilted, graceless, and frustrating.  A friend recommended I try something to free up my mind, and in that mix of gloom and a need to shake out the tight lines, my dad's tree technique tapped on my shoulder.

The image above is a digital version of my application of my father's instruction from so long ago. Just a little 20 minute gesture, but an opportunity to reflect on the fact that I do have this one little piece of legacy to hang onto. No matter what life thrust upon or took away from him, he took that moment in my childhood to grab a pencil, and that moment has stayed with me 30 years or more. For all of us, those who are reeling with hurt, or frustrated, or fearful for the future, I hope we all remember today--and everyday--that little investments into single lives matter. More than we may ever live to see or understand.
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