Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn't try to write fiction. It's not a grand enough job for you. - Flannery O'Connor

As 2014 ends, it's time for the "Best Of" lists to start appearing our newsfeeds. The best movies, the best songs, the best new products. For some, the most anticipated of these is the "Best Books" list—the one where we add more books to the pile already waiting on our nightstands.

And yet, if these lists are indication, evangelicals have some odd reading habits. As much as we say we value fiction, when the "Best Christian Books" lists come out, they are stacked with nonfiction. (And if we do bring up top fiction titles, they only appear in a separate, fiction-only category.) This reality has niggled at me for a while, if only because I knew it mirrored my own reading and writing habits. So recently I decided to do something about it: I signed up for National Novel Writing Month.

Valuing Fiction

More than 400,000 people around the world participate in National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo), devoting the month of November to churning out a rough draft of that novel that so many believe they have inside them. By registering at the official site, NaNoWriMo.org, participants can track word count, connect with other writers, and receive encouragement throughout the process. A cheery banner at top assures you that “The World Needs Your Novel.”

While I doubt the veracity of this statement, I knew that I needed to write a novel. For the last several years, I’d been collecting anecdotes and bits of conversation to “one day” put in a book. Theoretically, I knew the power of stories to preserve a way of life or explore the human condition; but whenever I sat down to write, I inevitably veered toward non-fiction. I guess simply didn’t value stories the way I claimed I did.

This disconnect might trace back to my relationship with the most prominent book in my life: The Holy Bible. Like other conservatives, I cling to the authority of the Scripture. Given modernist readings of Scripture as myth, it’s easy to react in the exact opposite direction and approach the Scripture as if it were non-fiction. After all, we believe it is literal and historical, right? Poetry, figurative language, and parables not withstanding.

When we privilege a non-fiction reading of Scripture, we can unknowingly translate this onto our broader reading and writing habits. Non-fiction will seem more “biblical” or more spiritual because it mirrors how we engage the sacred text. Even as we argue for the importance of the redeemed imagination, few of us are actually employing it. Participating in NaNoWriMo was my chance to act on what I’d long professed but never proven: writing fiction is just as valuable as writing non-fiction. As I set off to write in the beginning of November, it wasn’t long before I realized how daunting the task of 50,000 words in 30 days would be.

At the beginning, I consistently fell behind the allotted 1,667 words per day, and reaching the goal of 50,000 words seemed impossible and pointless. But then I remembered that NaNoWriMo carries with it no expectations, no editors, no consequences. Any fiction I wrote would be a success simply by the sheer fact of having written it.

Once I gave myself the freedom and space to create stories, I began to understand something that non-fiction would never teach me. I began to understand how the work of characterization and bringing a story to a satisfying end mirrors God’s own creative work in forming us and exercising providence over our lives.

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Imago Dei and Providence

One of the most difficult parts of storytelling is creating believable characters. When a writer fails to do this, the reader can spot it immediately. The people in the story feel flat—nothing more than cardboard cutouts, props to further the plot with mechanical dialogue.

This is where fiction challenges us and pushes us. To develop fully formed characters, a writer must explore the human condition. In non-fiction, we can speak of glory or depravity in theoretical terms; in fiction, we must actually show the things that make us glorious and depraved. A writer must pay attention to detail, to habits, to background—all the things that make a character human. Characters must also have a certain amount of freedom to act in ways that are consistent with their nature and history. Without this freedom, they will seem robotic because they will have been stripped of one of our most essential traits: volition.

At the same time, a good story must move forward in an intelligible way. An unseen hand must guide the differing plot lines to resolution, bringing the story to its proper end. Change one detail, and it will affect another and another. When I decided I wanted my protagonist to have an encounter with the antagonist in an empty home, I had to give her a job in a real estate office—five chapters and six months earlier. I had to see the bigger picture, to know how all the pieces fit together as a whole. Suddenly instead of being the one guided by providence, I was the one exercising providence… and learning how difficult it is to make all things work together for good.

Resolution

Just before the November 30 deadline, I spent a Saturday afternoon writing my final few thousand words. I limped across the finish line with 50,016 words. There were gaping plot holes, inconsistent character names, and chunks that needed editing, but I had done it. I had written 50,000 words of a novel.

Thirty days earlier, I had begun the process of NaNoWriMo as a way of forcing myself off my dependence on writing non-fiction. The left side of my brain needed a break, and I needed to prove what I believed to be true about fiction. By the end, not only had I gained a nifty “NaNoWriMo Winner” badge, I’d also gained a renewed appreciation for the importance (and difficulty) of creating stories. Just as reading fiction expands our imaginative capacity to appreciate God and his grand narrative, writing fiction pushed me toward him as well. Shaping characters reminded me of the complexity of human nature, and bringing it all to a coherent end gave me a deeper reverence for the God who is the Great Author of all.

Hannah Anderson is a freelance writer, blogger, and author of the book Made for More: An Invitation to Live Imago Dei(Moody, April 2014). She lives with her husband and three children in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. You can connect with her at her blog sometimesalight.com on Twitter @sometimesalight.