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Pushing the Envelope

October 1, 2010

Dirty Harry and his loaded question.

This week’s prompt is: Pushing the Envelope. Therefore, the first question one must ask is: “Do I feel lucky?” Okay, that’s really a bit of dialogue from the classic motion picture, Dirty Harry, but a very good point which we will get to. I mean, really, what does that mean, pushing the envelope? What envelope?

For me it means just the opposite of what I have been doing since this amazing turn of events began last year when I found that publisher. With regards to my writing, I haven’t been pushing anything, other than myself to do so much more. Yet, we’re not discussing working hard, meeting impossible deadlines or making our presence felt to the masses. I believe that “pushing the envelope” refers to pushing past one’s comfort zone. To move beyond self constructed barriers. To do what is not comfortable.

I am not a marketing guy, but I think I have been bright enough to know not to alienate potential buyers of my novel. Therefore, I have not mentioned in any short story, novel, post or article which side of the political fence I may or may not reside. I have stayed away from any and all incendiary topics. Not only this, but I have also attempted to shy away from small things which could also get feathers ruffled, such as what form of music I have little appreciation for, or which sports teams I follow. Some of these things probably sound rather trivial to some, and most certainly, some of these things will eventually be made known (Country Music; Dallas Cowboys and Chicago Cubs). My point is that in the beginning I wanted to try to be able to reach every facet of my potential audience.

Draper Street, Swedish Festival

One example that I can give is The Kingsburg Swedish Festival. The city that I live in has Swedish roots. Therefore, our colors are Swedish; our buildings have a Swedish architecture; for all intents and purposes, we are a Swedish town. Once a year in May, we hold a festival which draws thousands. Years ago, the festival used to be held in our large park. Before and after our Saturday parade, people would head back to the park where the vendors and food booths were located. We had shade and comfortable grass to walk upon. Eventually, it was moved downtown to what we call our main street. Now we have to walk on cement and asphalt, and have little shade from the sun; but the consumers can walk amongst the shops and thus boost the downtown. Recently, there was a Facebook movement began which hoped to move the festival back to the park. However, since I am now a member of the Chamber of Commerce, you must now see that I declined the invitation to side with one side or the other. I think any reasonable person who has attended the festival would probably know which choice is best, but I am staying away from the subject.

Now, having said all of that, is this really what we mean? Or is it something more?

There is another way that one could push the envelope. My novel is a Christian/Horror crossover. It has a little bit of both and, I hope, is just the right combination to make the novel interesting, fresh and gripping. Now that it has been out for seven months, and I have begun to grow a small following across social networking sites as well as in my hometown, and the audience has begun to know what to expect from me, could it be time to push against their comfort zone? Do I now release a dark and pure horror novel where the devil seems to win more than he loses? Or do I release a purely Christian novel? How about Romance? I could do that, you know. I reach for the romantic comedy DVDs quicker than my wife does. Don’t think I couldn’t! Perhaps I could really shake things up by writing about the rape and murder a young girl much like The Lovely Bones.

What do you guys think? When might it be time to do such a thing? Too early and one might lose an audience before they have that trust factor where they’ll follow you anywhere; too late and they might feel abandoned. I was going to cite Stephen King, but because his writing is so prolific and his audience so varied that he probably did not notice the couple of times that I quit reading him. Of course, he knows that we sometimes come back.

See! I told you.

13 Comments leave one →
  1. October 1, 2010 4:00 pm

    Just like in love, there is a reader for every author, whether it be a large group or just a few friends, it is a balancing act. I do think you’re wise to stay away from any political views and opinions that could be left or right, on anything. Not unless those views are so strong, you feel compelled to write about them. Which can be a death sentence for a author. So just keep on that balance beam, and hope for the best.

    • October 1, 2010 8:14 pm

      Thanks for the note, Lee. I read this early this morning, but was busy as heck at work and unable to reply. I think after some measure of time a level of trust is developed whereas the writer can get away with a little envelope pushing. I’ll let you know…soon…perhaps not that soon.
      Thanks again.

  2. October 1, 2010 4:53 pm

    Great post – I was shocked about Dallas, not so about the movie choices ;-p (I had read that on your personal blog) and now I know why you wrote the details of your book – you live there!! Super cool.

    My advice? Write the story that calls to you. If it’s not a continuation of the same story that’s okay. People will like the book they read – whichever number it happens to be in your collection — and may or may not go back to read other titles.

    You’re good. No one is Mr. King but the King himself, but that’s okay too 😉

    • October 1, 2010 8:17 pm

      Thanks, C.J. Hey, while I’m here, I posted a first-ever video blog this morning on my personal blog. In it, I say hello to the entire staff. Have you ever seen the naked news? Not really, all clothing was left on during the five minutes. 😉

  3. Julie Musil permalink
    October 1, 2010 8:38 pm

    You? Chick flicks? I don’t believe it.

    I read somewhere that we should write what scares us. Not sure how well I do in that department though.

    • October 2, 2010 3:21 am

      Chick flicks? I absolutely do. Some of my favorites are “Notting Hill”, “Love Actually”,” An Affair to Remember”, “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir”, “The Notebook” and “Possession”. Notice I did not list “While You Were Sleeping”. I like it, but my wife insists that we watch it every Christmas. It is good, but does get a bit old… Okay, I give up. I’ll list that one, too. 😉

  4. October 2, 2010 12:04 am

    Liked the article, James, but I’m afraid I violated one of your rules way long ago. My characters reflect me a lot more than they should, so you can pretty much call me a “Boston” homer.

    And get that Swedish festival back in the park or put some greenery into downtown. Dallas still holds its Highland Games in the park.

    • October 2, 2010 3:26 am

      Now, Greg. I could never go against the Kingsburg city planners *wink*. I think the festival should be downtown *wink*! Why would anyone want to have it in the park *wink*? Who am I to question the decision *wink*? Thank you for you advice. 😉

    • george allwynn permalink*
      October 3, 2010 7:01 pm

      I understand that Greg. My stories are rich in Michigan backgrounds, traditions and history.

      But I chose it that way, not to limit my imagination or story telling, but to honor the great state I love.

      Right now, Michigan sucks in the job department – I believe we are still the lowest state for employment. Our schools test low, most are on welfare or unemployment, and we are loosing so many young families and other opportunities that would have revived the state.

      Yet, here I am – still here, still proud to be a Michigander. And I am determined to share my love of my home state with my readers because there is still a lot here in the state to celebrate.

  5. george allwynn permalink*
    October 3, 2010 6:49 pm


    This is why you are a gentleman, James, and I’m a mangy barn-yard tabby cat, complete with ragged ears and a host of fleas…

    I have no manners, no tack and couldn’t give a flying trapeze man in constricting tights a second glance about offending my readership. I write the song that yowls in disharmony within my shredded soul. May the old boots and other rot tossed my way fall where they may.

    With that being said, I also have learned there are better ways to…, ummm, reach AND maintain people – get my opinions across – and push my agenda without being the big bosomed blonde bimbo at the bar, half drunk, yelling across the room with a cigarette dangling from her mouth.

    In other words, when the exercise includes a work out of ‘envelope pushing’, I always keep these things in mind: Candy tastes better than vegetables. Humor goes a long ways. And most importantly – write covertly. Sneak stuff in. Little chunks are more digestible than force feeding a 4 course meal. And don’t forget to stop every so often to ‘burp the baby’.

    Oh – and something I’ve learned from other authors who push their own agendas — when one writes INTERESTING, colorful characters who are realistic and sympathetic, use them to win readers over to your side – or at least to get a foot in the door and get them thinking…

    (it works on me anyway…)

    Final thought – I’ve always used my writing as my personal arena to ‘push’ things that are important to me. After all, why write if you are not using the full potential of your power?

  6. October 3, 2010 8:26 pm

    Thanks for the note, George. How’s the health? I hope things are settling down with you, my friend. I think I will most definitely write the stories that I want to write. I hope the Christians give me a pass when I darken something up in the future; conversely, I hope the folks who like their material real dark will give me a pass when I decide to write something that brings on the tears. We’ll see…
    Thanks for stopping by…and don’t forget to head over to my personal blog and see my first-ever video blog. I’m right there…In The Flesh. (Just a little Pink Floyd for your day.)

    • October 4, 2010 8:40 pm

      Speaking as a past licensed chaplain of over 12 years – I believe a good majority of Christians will have no problem with your darker stories. Today’s Christian knows the darker side of spiritual warfare is out there and as long as you stay true to the basics, readers will devour stuff like that.

      I mean, take a look at Frank Peretti (This Present Darkness, etc) — OMG!

      I fell in love with this stuff when it came out! I mean, to weave the tenants and morals of my faith – into a story that spoke so positive of religion AND fought a great battle against the dark army of the enemy? AWESOME

      Sure, I caught a lot of flack from the church leadership I was under, but my indie spirit has come to understand my personal relationship with God is different than my relationships to ‘the church’. But that is touchy water for some, and I will not go into it here.

      I just wanted to say James, when you are as strong in your faith as you obviously are, and you feel led to write darker Christian stories in order to reach a sect of folks who normally would not get reached – who is anyone to judge you?

      And if they do, shame on them. They need to refer back to the red letters in the New Testament.

      I think you will do just fine finding your path and meeting the needs of your readers. After all, God wouldn’t have blessed you with your talent had he not had this plan for you!

      (*I now remove my clerical collar — ever once in awhile, it slips back around my neck without me realizing it. Sorry – didn’t mean to preach a sermon on Monday evening!)

      PS – the health is still a headache, but slowly getting a handle on things. I am still bloated out – just squeeze me in a thong and toss me into the ring. POOF! I am a Sumo wrestler…

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