This ebook, ‘How to be a Catholic Author’ tackles head-on the culturally accepted conflict between our Faith and our fiction, and how we resolve it.
Written for a modern author, this guide helps you understand the two key questions in this discussion: what it means to be a Catholic Author, and who your readers are.
Armed with these answers, you can explore any genre, theme or story – and not get lost. The Catholic faith is not a shackle to our creativity. It is a lifeline.
The author is Dominic de Souza, a cradle-Catholic, graduate from the Institute for Children’s Literature, and self-published Writing Coach. Filled with quotes from influential Catholic writers on each page, Dominic de Souza packs in as much inspiration, encouragement and consideration as he can.
Because the ultimate goal of fiction is not to provide all the answers, but to inspire a conversation.
Dominic de Souza
Welcome to the most exciting journey in the world: being an author. And on top of that, being a Catholic Author.
Those of us fortunate (or unfortunate?) enough to be filled with the creative muse, passionate about folk and worlds that no one else can see or hear, we who are bitten by the wanderlust of the imagination and the inveterate need to spin stories from nothing within the fabric of our beings… we are a happy few.
But many of us live under a cloud of unease, unsure how to integrate our Faith with our fiction, perhaps fearful to associate our belief with our branding. This is a cloud of misconception.
I want to fill you with confidence that you write almost anything you want to, go anywhere and tell any store you’re inspired to tell. It’s where our craft intersects with who we are as Catholics that needs some clarity.
My goal is to try and clear the air, reset our impressions, and more likely than not, provide hope that it’s not as difficult as it’s made out to be. This ebook covers two basic concepts:
- Who you are as a Catholic Author.
- Who your readers are.
Dominic de Souza
Who you are as a Catholic Author.
3 Kinds of Authors
There are three kinds of Catholic authors;
- Those who don’t know much about the Faith, and either don’t care or don’t know to deepen it. Being a ‘Catholic author’ is not a concern.
- Those who are moderately familiar with it, and are as conscious of it as a newly converted catechumen afire with a new world of sacraments and symbols.
- Those who are intimately familiar with the Faith, to the point where it has become the groundswell on which they walk, no longer seeing it, the way we no longer see the air we breathe because it is our state of ‘normal.
This ebook is for authors #2 and #3.
Be an Author.
First of all, stop. If you’re like me, you love the Catholic Faith. And you are equally passionate about lorecrafting, whether for modern fiction, historical spellbinders, or fantasy and science fiction epics.
But sometimes we grapple on the intersection of our Faith and our craft. Which comes first?
Well, here’s where we’re thinking about it wrong. Imagine an attic, or a cave, filled with dimly lit objects, barely discernable in the musty gloom. And striking through the middle of the room is a shaft of sunlight, spearing through a split shingle and picking out the silent waltzing of dust motes, tracking a yellow path across the planks.
The author-who-is-Catholic will stare at the shaft of light, and want to write about it, write about the attic, show how it reveals everything it touches.
The Catholic-author crosses the room and looks up into the lightbeam. He now no longer sees the light itself. He now sees a world illuminated by radiance, defined by darkness and splinters of Heaven.
Just stop. :)
First and foremost, we are authors. We tell stories. That is our responsibility, to tell a tale that will captivate and spellbind for an hour, perhaps more. Our call is to inspire a reader to hide themselves away in an inner room, shut the door and be subsumed into a story.
We aren’t evangelists. (Well, you might be, but that’s a different vocation.) Leave the evangelizing to the apologists.
Our first and foremost mission is pay close attention to crafting the ‘fictive dream’, the reader’s willing suspension of disbelief to be entertained by the plot, characters and events in our story.
While of course you can write evangelistic literature, and plenty of people do, that’s not the kind of Catholic author we are. We are fiction authors.
Imagine a painter who is thoroughly sincere, and paints a bad painting of the Incarnation. It is a sublime theme, but their lack of talent or discipline with the brush actually hinders our ability to appreciate the message. The hasty sweeps of the colors, the imbalanced use of tone and shade, and the lack of proportion impels us to think more critically of the painting techniques itself – rather than being transported by the artist’s vision.
In the moment that the audience becomes critical of a piece of art, rather than being transported by it, the art has failed. The goal of a painting is not to inspire an appreciation for the meticulous use of brush and canvas, pigment and proportion. The first goal is to communicate a message, an idea. To do that, you have to be a good artist.
The same holds true with a novelist. Your first job is to be a good one. If you can’t tell a compelling story with vivid description and believable characters, the reader will simply close the pages or switch off the app. It doesn’t matter how amazing your message is. If the ride isn’t worth it, they’ll never find out.
So our first responsibility: be a good author.
Flannery O’Connor, ‘Catholic Novelists & Their Readers’
Stories Inform or Inspire
Stories exist for two reasons; to inform, or to inspire.
To inform can be anything from teaching an idea, sharing a worldview, inducting the reader into a strange situation to help them understand something.
To inspire, we can induce anger or joy through the lives and experiences of our invented characters. We can move the reader to take action or learn something new. Perhaps we can show them something they might not have sat through a lecture for because we captured their imagination – and helped them to enter our mindworld and live again the dream we dreamed.
Our novels can fill with passion and hope, change the way we look at the world, perhaps force someone to change the way they live.
How does the Faith ‘fit’ into all this?
Honesty check: stop trying. If you have to try to shoehorn the Faith into your story, you might be doing it wrong. As a Catholic author, it needs to be part of the inspiration we’re using to create.
We need to be looking along the lightbeam and seeing the world the way the lightbeam does, not looking at it. The world doesn’t need more authors who call themselves Catholic. It needs more stories that spring from the fountain of inspiration that Catholicism brings an author and his craft.
A Sanitized Worldview?
Plenty of us authors believe that being a Catholic author means we have to write from a sanitized, pious worldview, one where the characters wisely promote hope and everything ends happily. Where the heroes are always noble and altruistic, their relationships perfect and ideal, their formation and environment an envied fantasy.
Because isn’t that ultimately how life should be? Perhaps.
The first thing a Catholic learns about in the Faith is the inescapable presence of sin, pain and death. In a world built on the backs of angels and sustained by the eternal generator of life, these ironic entropies are the cards we are dealt. That’s why we have the Sacraments, sacramentals and the inspiration of our prayer lives.
But every Catholic worth their salt isn’t naive. We know that plenty of things go wrong, broken people make bad choices, many don’t even get a chance to see the sunbeam. Up to the last half century, the Catholic fiction that we became known for was a certain kind.
More often than not, the stories were fairy-tale like in their simplicity, aiming to inspire the young reader the same way that the saints’ stories had been purged of any embarrassing indications of personal failure. It may have been a praiseworthy idea of presenting the best of the best, but either then and now, there remained a deep disconnect between the experiences of the reader, and the apparent felicity of the characters.
This sense of being pious and writing didactic tales has a certain value, but remains more of a teaching tool than entertainment. Catholic authors today feel that they have to write more of this milquetoast fiction, replete with religious figures, carefully ordered families and idealistic characters. Or to be a Catholic author means you have to create Catholic versions of ‘Fireproof’ or ‘God’s Not Dead’.
The Protestant inspiration for literature seems born from an evangelical need to (essentially) giftwrap the Great Commission. They are using their fiction to explicitly share a message. That’s not to say you can’t write that kind. :) And that’s not to say that it isn’t enjoyed quite widely and fiercely among certain people.
But that’s only a small part of the story. And that’s not ultimately what a Catholic author is limited to.
Your average reader today won’t pick up ‘Percy Wynn’, or watch ‘The Bells of St Marys’. The average reader is probably at the cinemas, or watching Netflix’s trending lineup.
And here is the difference that I want to drive a wedge into. How we write is inspired by who we are and where we come from.
The Protestant ethic lays a great stress on the words said, while the Catholic lays a greater stress on the deeds done. Both are inspired by our perception of relationship to Christ. It is the Catholic worldview that recognizes that we retain our free will, and at any moment can shift the direction of our eternity through our own choices.
Each act we make is a response to a secret or obvious invitation from God to do a good deed. How closely and sincerely we cooperate with His Will to save us defines our lives and destiny. It all comes back to the prime responsibility of the author. Be a good author first and foremost. Tell a good story.
If you can’t do that, you won’t be able to convey the message you intend.
How our Faith informs our Fiction
And here comes the crux of the issue; how our Faith informs our fiction. I think its a whole lot simpler than we anticipate. The goal of fiction is to tell a compelling story.
Our goal as Catholics is to help others come to know Christ in some way. And there are a billion ways to help someone ‘know Christ’. Christ is Truth itself. He is Beauty. He is Goodness. Any one of those can be the driving inspiration behind your story.
Your characters don’t have to convert to card-carrying members of St Agatha’s parish by the conclusion. They don’t have to end up on their knees in a confessional. They don’t have to even know anything about Catholicism, or even have Christ mentioned.
Think of some of your favorite films and books. Some of mine are The Chronicles of Narnia, Mission Impossible 3, or Gran Hotel. In none of these is there any explicit reference to the Faith.
And yet, each one of them is unconsciously born out of the virtues and values that centuries of Christian appreciation have brought the world.
Through Narnia, we come to appreciate and love beauty, mystery, magic, a sense that there is more to the world than our eyes and ells can tells us. We are introduced to the majesty of the spiritual and the cancerous presence of evil.
Mission Impossible 3 is premised on the capture and recovery of Ethan Hunt’s wife. The story is perhaps subconsciously built on the back of the Song of Songs, animated by the ideal that a husband and wife share a unique, incredible bond made dear by its very exclusivity, and the power that comes from desiring the good of the other no matter the sacrifice.
Gran Hotel is replete with intrigue and romance, perhaps a Spanish version of Downton Abbey. It has some of the most beautiful inclusions of the virtue of friendship, dedication and loyalty, circling the understanding that an authentic romance needs to be free and ordered to the good of the other.
All three are tales told by a non-Catholic/religious audience. At least to the best of my knowledge. ;) And yet all three are sources of spiritual inspiration – after being a gripping story. They teach us something about the true, or the good, or the beautiful, sometimes all three.
By showing the desirability of a virtue, or a way of life, we are helping the reader get a little closer to Christ.
By the way that we explore a theme, we can change how someone feels about an issue.
Different Tales for Different People
In case you’re thinking that we are only limited to telling certain kinds of stories, not so. We are free to go wherever we are inspired, to embrace any narrative for the story we want to tell.
Some are going to be cautionary tales, peopled by antiheroes who help us see the consequences of our actions, and give us a chance to vicariously experience the effects of evil. House of Cards is such an example. Some are simpler tales of goodness triumphing over evil, such as Lord of the Rings or Captain America.
Life is never perfect, and more often than not, stories are about how someone deals with the bad situation they are dealt. Steve Rogers has become the poster child for an older, simpler America where morality mattered. And he is passionately loved for his ‘one-dimensionalness’.
Some stories are horror tales, not for the faint of heart, designed to take the reality of spiritual warfare and internalize it, helping the reader to become intimately familiar with elements of angels and demons. Carefully handled, these can be conversion experiences. And there are plenty of others.
What makes a Catholic author distinct from any other author is how we integrate our Faith. Like with our Faith lives, we are free to any kind of good. We are not free to do evil.
We have the ability to do evil, but that abuse of our freedom rebounds on us in punishment, legalities, fines, expulsion, etc. We are free to explore any kind of good we want.
But we are not free to tell a story about characters indulging in evil without some sort of reference to God and the eternal law. What does that mean?
We need to be authentic with our treatment of the subject.
A Catholic could easily have written House of Cards, for all Frank Underwood’s Machiavellian twists and manipulative backstabbing. Where a Catholic might have done it differently is to accentuate what happens when we insistently pursue evil for its own sake. Evil is never a comfortable mode of life; it spins off into a world of fear, deceit, disloyalty, greed, and most of all, the leprotic lack of any real peace.
Several Catholic publishers have released titles exploring themes in the gay community, some of them surprisingly honest about what their life is like. And these books have been written to show, through the immediate experiences of the characters, how harsh and lonely and misinformed life can be.
Can evil ever be glorified? No. That is the yoke under which we happily labor.
It is Catholicism that has the Confessional. It is Catholicism that truly understands just how dark and obsessed the human mind and heart can be. It is Catholicism that has chronicled and counseled for two millenia, and seen every form of depravity possible. It is Catholicism that has inspired and witnessed to countless acts of beauty and heroism, flooding the world with bold new ideas that continues to shatter expectations and shake cultures.
Simple ideas, as primal as our natures and as unexpectedly sublime as the Holy Family. Ideas that life is always valuable regardless the age. That there are two distinct natures among humans. That evil is to be avoided and good done.
Being a Catholic author doesn’t mean that we have less license to be as honest with our subject matter as we’d like. It means that we have more. Being Catholic means that we can shine a clearer light on the forces and effects truly in play with someone’s environment or decisions.
Our faith is not a shackle to our creativity, but a lifeline that allows us to go anywhere and explore anything without fear of losing ourselves. So in telling your story, look at it with honest eyes.
What element of the Truth do you want to leave your reader with?
Or is it an induction into beauty, the explicit beauty of an environment, the intellectual beauty of an idea, or the inspiring beauty of a soul?
Vanilla Sky is an example of the beauty of a singular love, how true love is lived for the other. There is no reference to Catholicism, the characters may even be atheist. But the story tracks us through a believable sequence of events that transforms the protagonist’s appreciation for authentic love.
White Collar tells the often hilarious and ever-exciting story of an art thief working with the FBI. Throughout each season, Neal Caffrey struggles with a simple idea; can a man be greater than his desires, or are we defined by our brokenness? More often than not, the characters do the wrong thing, and try to sweep it under the rug. It invariably catches up to them, and they face the choice to do another wrong thing. He is haunted by his past, and grapples with this idea.
Catholic fiction doesn’t always provide the answers. In fact, fiction doesn’t always either. The goal of fiction is to tell a riveting story. The inspiration may be to share an idea, or hone the question.
Sometimes a great deal of good can be done by clarifying the question, and eliciting in the reader a desire to go on their own journey for the answer.
Who your readers are.
3 Reasons for Writing
When I was 15, I was convinced that my future was fixed, and was going to be a successful writer. I read voraciously, put out two children’s novels, a myriad of stories and poetry I’m embarrassed to share, and brainstormed enough epics to retire on.
And the more I learned, the more I understood how nigh impossible it is to make a living off of writing – especially in fiction. Unless you’re a runaway New York Times bestseller, and can write a book a month. There are three reasons for writing:
- Some writers write for themselves, in love with an idea, and in love with simply telling a story. They aren’t animated by the book signings or the publishing deals. If other people read it and enjoy it, well, then the world is a nicer place.
- Some writers write explicitly for an audience. They know who their readership are, and so they are bound to tell a story that they know will be read and liked. They may or may not be as personally inspired by their story.
- Some writers write for the money. It’s a book deal, a royalty check, the fame. Frequently these authors will do anything to get the wordcount, and tell any story. They know their readership, but they are bound to their need for finance or fame.
The best and most enduring is #1. They will invariably write the best and most inspirational literature. #1 and #2 are a good combo. #3 sets up the ‘starving artist’ trope. Be animated by a love for the thing you’re doing, getting excited about the process and the project, and then working hard to bring it to life.
Do it because you love it. Nothing else will sustain you.
If you’re in it for the money, you won’t ever make much. Especially if you are promoting yourself to a Catholic publisher, royalty checks will be few and far between, largely because we have a problem with our audience.
Unfortunately, Catholics don’t turn to Catholic publishers for entertainment. They turn to the secular media, because Catholics in the past have either failed to provide material gripping enough, or they have been washed away in the tidal surge of stories. If you are fortunate to be published by a large secular publisher, kudos. :) But don’t expect to retire on royalty checks.
In retrospect, I’m glad I have a day job; it takes the pressure off my novel writing, and allows me the time to breathe and set my own deadlines. If you are convinced that you can do it, fire away. And develop a good relationship with your publishers.
They know the interests of their readership, and will help you craft a novel they will want to publish. But most of all, tell the story you want to read, and write the story that makes you excited. Then find out if there are others who will get as excited about it as you are.
Who are you writing for?
Like any project out there, the first question you need to ask yourself is: who am I writing for? Not everything is for everyone. Whether you’re writing family friendly stories, or deliberately writing for a like-minded community, we are automatically writing for a segment of people.
This is the most important point for a Catholic author to understand as they progress in their hobby/career. You shoudn’t read Hamlet to a classroom of manic despressives. Nor should the Song of Songs be read to raw adolescents.
For a piece of art to be appreciated, there is a corresponding responsibility in the viewer; they have to be the right viewer. Invariably, the wrong people will pick up your book and voice their vituperation at the presence of this ‘un-Catholic’ content. But this is not necessarily a flaw in the fiction, but a rift in the reader.
Not everyone is spiritually disposed to read, understand and appreciate Macbeth. Or the Sistine Chapel. Or St Thomas Aquinas. In each of these cases, a certain spiritual, moral and personal development is required for appreciation.
The same goes for any page in Sacred Scripture – hence the age old practice of reserving it to the ‘Initiated’, those who have applied themselves and who have been taught to enter into a veneration of its mysteries. The average reader of the Bible often leaves more confused than solaced, and perhaps starts their own denomination.
The same principle applies to writing your novel. You bring a particular point of view, and your story grapples with the truth in some particular way. Perhaps the safest way to package how you think about your book going forward is to indicate the type of reader who will best appreciate this book. And then don’t expect your family or friends to automatically understand why you need to tell this tale.
If you are struggling with a truth or an event, and turn to fiction to dramatize it so that you can share your questions and character progression with others, recognise that not everyone is struggling with the same questions. This is the crux of the issue.
Not every Catholic out there appreciates fantasy, or science fiction. Not every film or book will have broad market appeal. Even MARVEL knows what stories to tell and not tell. They know their audience, and they tell the humorous, epic and transporting stories that they know will be liked.
With this in mind, approach your writing and your promotion of your book to target it to the audience you know will appreciate it.
Don’t try to write for everyone.
From the moment you start typing letters or put pen to paper, you are limiting your audience to the people who share your loves, who are receptive to the places you will take them. It is the role of the Church to decide if something is unfit for general consumption, and relegate it to the desks of academics who are equipped to deal with the heretical or the gnostic.
When it comes to the explicit use of sin in a tale, I also struggle with how to portray it. What might to one reader be nothing, to another might be an occasion of sin.
And what if its an important part of your character’s experiences? What if you’re trying to enter into all the darkness involved in someone’s decisions, as ugly as it can be? First of all, your reason for writing the novel is paramount. If you’re writing it for an audience, then you will tailor it for their interests and sensibilities.
But if you’re writing it because you have a vision of where it needs to go, then your responsibility is to that vision – within the bounds of what we discussed earlier relating to the expression of evil.
An author can’t assume spiritual responsibility for all his readers. Only God can. Otherwise Sacred Scripture would never have been written because of the ‘apparent lack of clarity’ and inclusion of plenty of scandalous moments.
Perhaps it might help if you imagined your book having a rating, the way films do. Research how they decide what goes into the different categories, and perhaps tailor your story accordingly.
Let’s end with an idea. In the stone plaza of the Vatican’s pillared embrace stands an obelisk, a memory to the once great glory of Rome and mortal empire.
The Church is not one to demolish and do away with the trappings of a disconnected and pagan past, but baptize it, save the silver and store away memory of the dross.
Throughout history, the Church has been at the forefront of preserving history, even at its most embarrassing and innocuous, hoarding it for future generations and scholars. Man’s contribution to the world treasury of arts has a billion founts of inspiration, and the creative breath of God blows through all cultures, seeking responsive souls to allow it entrance into our world.
Although often tainted, every culture has an ideal of beauty, enjoys some flawed sense of goodness, and wraps these images in myths and gods, cultures and clothing, lore and legend.
With the Incarnation, and the perennial presence of Christ among us, man’s half-blind stabs at silvered truth have become rungs on a gilt ladder connecting our starved world to a stunning Heaven. God is the true, the good, and the beautiful. Wherever we find these, we find Him.
For this reason, the Church has carefully welcomed the creative inspiration of cultures and peoples, sieved the salvageable and exorcised the problematic, storing away the dangerous for the study of scholars and priests.
Has this always happened? No, of course not. Plenty of times individuals have acted in their best interests, or been fired by a misguided sense of direction, or been forced to do something necessary to impress the souls at the time. Regardless, the thrust of the Church Herself is to recognize the presence of God, however faint and nascent, and bring it into the swelling greenhouse of grace – the life of Christ Himself.
It’s for this reason that the Church placed a cross on the Roman obelisk, transforming it from a statement of man’s presence into a skyscraper reaching for the symbol of Christ. What is hidden becomes clear, what is potential becomes activated, what was unintentional becomes purpose.
With all this in mind, we shouldn’t be afraid to explore where our stories take us, because first and foremost, we have to remember that we are storytellers.