Bringing a Strong Vision to Your Fiction

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QQ Li (Flickr Creative Commons)

Please welcome Laura K. Cowan to Writer Unboxed. Laura writes imaginative stories that explore the connections between the spiritual and natural worlds. Laura’s debut novel The Little Seer was a Top 5 Kindle Bestseller for free titles in Christian Suspense and Occult/Supernatural, and it was hailed by reviewers and readers as “riveting” as well as “moving and lyrical.” Her second novel, a redemptive ghost story titled Music of Sacred Lakes, and her first short story collection, The Thin Places: Supernatural Tales of the Unseen, received rave reviews, and Music of Sacred Lakes also topped the Kindle free bestseller lists during its launch.

A combination of emotional abuse and multiple near-death experiences as a child, coupled with a highly intuitive personality that caused her to have dreams and visions of future events in her life even from a young age, led Dreaming Novelist Laura K. Cowan to the work of writing spiritual fantasy.

A combination of emotional abuse and multiple near-death experiences as a child, coupled with a highly intuitive personality that caused her to have dreams and visions of future events in her life even from a young age, led Dreaming Novelist Laura to the work of writing spiritual fantasy, in which she both explores paths to emotional healing and the supernatural nature of the world we live in, the places beyond it, and what happens when people step between them.

You can connect with Laura on Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter, and find her at her blog.

Bringing A Strong Vision to Your Fiction

Spirituality in writing. It’s a hot topic. Too hot to handle, rather.

In the United States, where I live, there has been a slow devolving of public discourse on politics, spirituality, and other topics you should never discuss at the family reunion. But why is that? It’s not because they don’t matter to us anymore. It’s because they are so important to us, and so emotionally charged with histories of abuse and pain, that many of us can’t handle discussing them in a civilized way. Many writers take the hint and steer clear of these topics, particularly spirituality, which is somewhat out of fashion in fiction at the moment. But I never seem to be able to steer away from what is important to me. I steered right into it. And in the process I discovered something I think is important for all of us as writers: how to bring a strong vision to your work that will inspire people to see the world in a new way.

My fiction is technically magical realism or literary fantasy, and has been compared to fantasy sci-fi authors Ursula K. Le Guin and Ray Bradbury. But it has a distinctly spiritual flavor because of its cosmological speculative elements about how the world might be knit together—portals between worlds, visions of what kinds of fantastic beings might be out there, that kind of thing. Even though I never aim to tell people what to think with my fiction, I did realize after a lot of reading and writing that I don’t like stories that don’t have some kind of depth to them, emotionally, spiritually, even intellectually. I now believe that artists need to bring some strong vision of the world to the page, or else why do we want to experience their view of things? MusicofSacredLakesBookCoverFrontStories need vision, of some kind. They need substance. But how do you develop this vision in your work?

I think you do it by following your heart. Whatever is deep inside you, whatever is really important to you that you wish you could write about—even if you’re afraid no one would care—that is your vision. What do you care about more than being a commercial success? What keeps you going in life when times are terrible? Write about that. Write about what you love and what you hate all wrapped up in a circumstance where they can’t get away from each other. That’s what matters to you. That’s your vision of the world.

Does writing this kind of fiction, controversial and intense, make it difficult to get published with a traditional publisher these days? Sometimes. But after obsessing over this in my own writing for far too long, I decided I’m not in the business of pandering. I have gone through hell to be a writer, and it would be a tragedy to come this far and end up writing what someone else told me would sell when it isn’t what’s burning inside me to write. So I write spiritual fiction. Take it or leave it, though I hope my work is entertaining and does not need to be believed literally to be enjoyed. My work takes what I see in the world on multiple levels and makes it literal, brings the invisible realms into the visible to give people the chance to experience life in a new and wonderful way.

I do believe that readers in general recognize good fiction when they see it, so there is a reason that strong love stories dominate the fiction trends in most genres, even when the writing isn’t strong. People need love stories. People need many other kinds of stories, too. So when I write spiritual fiction, it is important for me to make sure it is the best fiction I can write. No excuse to soap box. This is art. But if you have something burning inside of you to write and no one seems interested, I say you learn your craft and you push your art to its limits, and when you offer it to the world, they may realize that was what they needed all along.

Unless you’re Van Gogh and never sell a single painting in your lifetime, in which case you can hope you’re good enough for posthumous accolades. Yeah, I know. Not really funny when you’re killing yourself to make a living at your art, but there is so much out of our control as writers.

Isn’t it time to just write what we came here to write?

It’s too hard to come this far and write shallow fiction. Write what’s inside you, whatever it is. Bring it out into the light. If it’s not popular, you’ll need a day job. It will be hard either way. But I know for myself, when I stopped apologizing for how spiritual my focus is in life and in my fiction, I became radically happy. I may not be right about everything—how could I be? But I now know that I am not crazy. And you’re probably not crazy for whatever is burning inside of you either. Can you surgically remove your personality before you write? Are you sure you really should? I know it’s a hard sell when it’s not what everyone else is writing, but it’s also what sets you apart. I guess if we write the fiction that burns inside of us, that carries our vision of the world, we’ll just have to be very, very good. There’s no tragedy in that.

“Write what’s inside you, whatever it is,” Laura says. What’s inside of you? Is there something you care about more than being a commercial success?

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Comments

  1. says

    I totally agree that we should write from the heart, Laura, and I dislike the idea of pandering to ‘the marketplace.’ For myself, the process of seeking a traditional deal–of dealing with the critique and rejection, and the mentors I’ve found to help me toward that end–has not only made me a better writer, it’s deepened my fiction.

    Perhaps it’s just the case that I started out much shallower than you did, but I’ve never had any of the so-called gatekeepers tell me to ease off or simplify anything about my stories. Indeed, it’s been the contrary–nudges to explore emotions and inner conflict more fully. I’ve even had one of the “gatekeepers” tell me that I should add more complexity to the religious aspect of one of my manuscripts.

    I’m glad you’ve found your way to writing what’s inside you, and congrats on the success you’ve found with your stories! Thanks for sharing your journey here.
    Vaughn Roycroft´s last blog post ..Just A Pup

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  2. says

    Just yesterday I got both a 5 star and a 1 star review on my debut novel – opposite ends of the spectrum for sure.

    Your line “Write about what you love and what you hate all wrapped up in a circumstance where they can’t get away from each other” speaks to me. This is how I wrote my first novel. Many have praised my book, but a smaller group of tough critics chimed in, and I found myself attempting to alter my writing to garner their approval. Unfortunately, this has only succeeded in clogging up my writing process, sabotaging my efforts on a second book.

    I wrote my first book from the heart — without considering what others might think, and the scenes and words came effortlessly. I long to get back to that place. Being aware is the first step.

    Thanks for the reminder, and the wonderful encouragement, Laura!
    Suzanne McKenna Link´s last blog post ..What’s Your Story About?

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    • says

      That’s great, Suzanne. I once heard someone say that negative reviews are often just confirmation that the wrong person picked up our book. :) Obviously it is possible for us to write bad fiction, and readers are within their rights to point out the flaws, but I have often had the same response. A review saying it was boring right next to a review saying my book changed someone’s life. We all make many little decisions for how to create something that means something to us as well as being saleable, but ultimately I decided I would rather be a commercial flop and figure things out artistically on my own (with feedback) rather than let someone else tell me what I should be writing, because no one can tell you how you see the world and what matters to you. I think this is a common experience among writers who write at the edges of their genres, because people don’t know what they’re trying to do until they’ve already done it, since it doesn’t look like many other things that already exist. Best of luck to you! Sounds like you’re on the right track to figuring out what you’re doing as an artist.
      Laura K. Cowan´s last blog post ..Supernatural Psychological Romantic Story of Healing, Lone Cypress, FREE For 5 Days

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  3. says

    Laura, when you say your book is “spiritual fiction,” do you also mean “visionary fiction”? I’ve just been learning about visionary fiction as a subgenre (defined: “Visionary Fiction embraces spiritual and esoteric wisdom, often from ancient sources, and makes it relevant for our modern life.”). My stories are supernatural mysteries, often with spiritual themes. Of course most people are not aware that this subgenre even exists. Where do you find your readers for this kind of a novel?
    Paula Cappa´s last blog post ..Ghost Moons and Phantom Ships

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    • says

      Yes it is often visionary, Paula! For the purposes of this article I wanted to focus on how we can all bring a strong vision to our work whether it’s “visionary” or not, but mine does fit that category. Visionary Fiction Alliance friends just asked me to tweak this message in that direction, so I’ll be writing more specifically about that soon. I tend to find my readers by genre or content more than by the visionary label, but I often shelve my stuff under spiritual fiction if it’s strong in that area, because anyone picking that up is guaranteed to like whatever I’ve written. It’s nice to meet a fellow visionary writer! :)
      Laura K. Cowan´s last blog post ..Supernatural Psychological Romantic Story of Healing, Lone Cypress, FREE For 5 Days

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  4. Anjali Amit says

    The writing journey is long and hard, and and often seems narrowly bounded by what Vaughn has called the needs of “the marketplace.”

    Thank you for laying out so clearly the need to “write what’s inside you,” and to be “very, very good.” A story so good that it gains a large readership even if it deals with topics not commonly talked about.

    As Mark Antony says in Julius Caesar : “I only speak right on; I tell you that which you yourselves do know.”

    Thank you for a wonderfully encouraging post.

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    • says

      I’m so glad you were encouraged Anjali! :) The whole “you’ll have to get a day job” usually discourages people, but when I came to terms with the fact that this was what I wanted to do regardless of the economic consequences, I had a lot more peace about it. Nothing wrong with looking for that sweet spot in the market, but I’m so happy to own my choice to write what I love and just make it work from there. I realized one day I would rather work in a gas station than write stuff I didn’t love, so it’s actually really good to know those things about yourself so you don’t make yourself miserable. :) Best of luck with your writing!
      Laura K. Cowan´s last blog post ..Supernatural Psychological Romantic Story of Healing, Lone Cypress, FREE For 5 Days

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  5. says

    I mostly agree with Laura.

    But is writing what’s in our heart the problem, or is it crafting a heart inspired story in such a way that will captivate an audience? I’m more interested in how the characters interact and relate to the subject and one another, than the topic itself. Many times, I fell in love with a character and had no choice but to love the topic, because the character were so deeply intertwined with it.

    Yeah, use that TALENT, and write what’s in our heart.

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    • says

      What a great point Brian. I think these are the tough choices for us as writers, because sometimes it’s hard to know if you’re writing what you really love or just writing in a way that you love but that doesn’t connect with a modern audience in your genre for some reason. I think there does need to be some concession, like overcoming a language barrier, to communicating in a way people can grasp, but it can be a slippery slope from that to letting your book change into something you didn’t want it to be. We all have to make our choices and hope we’re finding the best balance for what we’re trying to achieve, I guess. I know my second novel would have been much more attractive to publishers if I had expanded on certain parts of the story, but I decided it really was just a story focused on emotional healing and metaphysics, and I was okay with people not liking it if they weren’t going to like that part. I could have gone either way, and I can see good reasons for either choice, but in the end I decided what I wanted the book to be and stuck with it. Great point!
      Laura K. Cowan´s last blog post ..Supernatural Psychological Romantic Story of Healing, Lone Cypress, FREE For 5 Days

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  6. says

    Great post, Laura. I agree that readers are looking to satisfy a need or needs and there are a great many out there, some overlapping and others less so. In other words, a Hierarchy of Needs. We all want to satisfy them all and enjoy a character who desires to do the same. A belief system is a part of each individual even if it isn’t religious, but it’s also something many writers ignore (like that pesky sense of smell). Though I write about a fictional world I do address spiritual and religious issues. It’s one more way to bring depth to a character and to a world.
    Christina Hawthorne´s last blog post ..Compression

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  7. says

    I’m glad I found you, Laura. Spiritual issues seem to find their way into every novel I write. It took a while for me to realize and admit that. It took even longer for me to accept that it’s natural and reflects my deepest fears, hopes, and needs. So while I don’t write novels for the religious market, if I’m writing from my heart, that mysterious spiritual angle will weave itself in. Thanks for letting me know that it’s a blessing, not a curse . . . and that I’m not alone. Wishing you the best!
    Karyn Henley´s last blog post ..When 13 is a Lucky Number

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    • says

      It’s nice to meet you, Karyn! I’m hoping that as we shift in the west from a modern to a postmodern culture even in spiritual arenas, the spiritual won’t be so taboo because of its “non-rational” nature anymore. I think the reason we see more YA in this stream is that young people are already interested in it more than older folks. But these are all the fond hopes of a biased writer, of course. :) I think the world will be a better place when we don’t censor spiritual content in books so much, as long as it is handled in a respectful and open-minded manner, but these days that might be a lot to ask from a fraught culture.
      Laura K. Cowan´s last blog post ..Supernatural Psychological Romantic Story of Healing, Lone Cypress, FREE For 5 Days

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  8. says

    I love this. It gives me hope concerning the YA novel I just finished revising and sent to beta readers. I wrote about the afterlife, and in the midst of four years or rewrites, I lost both my grandmothers, three friends to suicide (the mc in my book takes her own life) and another dear friend just before I revised the ending scene. My heart is in it, open to readers, and I don’t think I could do it another way. Now to see if agents/publishers/ readers (mostly the readers. those are the ones I care about in the end) feel that connection through the characters.

    I’ve now begun a series and it touches on many fears and a few truths.

    Lovely article and all the best to you.
    Tonia Marie Harris´s last blog post ..Today is a color (a poem)

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    • says

      I hope you find just the right readers for that, Tonia. It sounds a bit like my first novel, that I wrote out of the pain of my early twenties when I went through a lot of difficult experiences related to my faith and church community of origin. I was a little embarrassed about how overtly religious that first supernatural novel was, and how it wasn’t as sophisticated as later novels (though, how could it be?) but in the end I decided the book would do someone some good and I wanted it out there. I had three people email me and tell me the book changed their life, including one of the bloggers who reviewed it. It had a relatively small audience, but it found those right people, who needed a little hope about the possible nature of God’s character and the possibilities of the supernatural realm and how we might be able to access it. I’m still a little embarrassed about it, but I’m still very proud of it too. :) Best of luck to you with that book. It’s really hard to bleed all over the page and clean it up into a good novel, but it’s also one of the best kinds of fiction to read, in my opinion.
      Laura K. Cowan´s last blog post ..Supernatural Psychological Romantic Story of Healing, Lone Cypress, FREE For 5 Days

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  9. says

    Speaking of near-death experiences, it’s Dannion Brinkley’s birthday today. I’m very curious about what you experienced, Laura.

    Yes, Laura and Brien, write from the heart and learn your craft.

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    • says

      Oh gosh, long story, but I’m like that girl with a balloon for a head that keeps trying to float away. I spent most of my childhood naturally tuned into the supernatural/spiritual just because I’m sensitive and intuitive by nature like a lot of people, but hyper-tuned in because the repeat trauma made me hyper alert to danger of all kinds, which tends to cause dissociation. So I spent a lot of time flying out of my own life and aiming for heaven, for lack of a better way to describe it. Makes for a weird writer, for sure. :)
      Laura K. Cowan´s last blog post ..Supernatural Psychological Romantic Story of Healing, Lone Cypress, FREE For 5 Days

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  10. Lynn says

    Laura,

    Thank you so much for this post on many levels. First, thank you for having the courage to write about spirituality. I haven’t read your books, but now you have me interested. Yes, why can’t we write—with sensitivity and emotional truth—about what moves us most in our lives. I’m a pastor working on a book whose main character is an avowed agnostic. Yet, at times of greatest stress and danger, my character wonders if there is anybody out there to help him. It’s not a big part of his story, but its there because it’s in people’s lives.

    “I know it’s a hard sell when it’s not what everyone else is writing, but it’s also what sets you apart. I guess if we write the fiction that burns inside of us, that carries our vision of the world, we’ll just have to be very, very good. There’s no tragedy in that.”
    Thank you also for having the courage to say that we should stop pandering to what we think will get published. After all, it will all change after the next best seller, maybe yours. Like you, I still think its good writing that counts, stories that connect with people because the characters have been provided to them in a humane and understandable way. I’ll be happy with my story as long as I have done the best job I could to craft it. Yes, there IS no tragedy in that.

    I’m looking forward to your books.
    PS I don’t have a blog post because my “blogs” are the sermons I post weekly.

    Lynn

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  11. says

    I am inspired to read about what has shaped the stories you write, Laura, thank you. I truly believe that stories come from the heart, and, as you put it, we must all follow our heart if we wish to tell stories that will last, stories that will touch, stories that will be talked about (and, hence, that will sell).

    Writing might come from the head or the gut, but the heart is the source, and without it, words are just words. Clever arguments or moral epistles don’t move me, no more than stuff that grabs me and makes me shiver. Writing that makes me cry, that makes me jump with joy, that makes me fill up my coffee and eagerly turn another page – ah, that is beautiful. And I don’t think writers who create those things do so by filling in formulas or by trying too hard – those writers, to me, are the mystics who couple years of discipline and mastery of their craft with the divine art of channeling this substance called story.

    It’s heaven on earth, I think, something I don’t have to go to a building or join a religion to experience, either. I only need a book.
    John Robin´s last blog post ..Author Journeys: Welcome Therese Walsh

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    • says

      I love the way you describe it, John. It is heaven on earth. :) I think that’s one of the reasons I write about “thin places” between layers of reality. I just want to give you a little open heaven, or a portal into what I think might be beyond the surface of reality, so you can experience the world the way I do and take that experience in whatever direction you want or need to. How is there anything better I could spend my life doing, for the way I’m wired? Excited just talking about it. :) I agree, many writers that explore these areas of life are the hidden mystics of our culture. Shamans, in the most general sense of the term, because they stand between worlds and translate for the benefit of their people.
      Laura K. Cowan´s last blog post ..Supernatural Psychological Romantic Story of Healing, Lone Cypress, FREE For 5 Days

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  12. says

    While writing should be clear and focused I don’t believe it always has to have a vision, unless you mean plot. As the author you are naturally going to draw on your own inner feelings. That gives life to the character. Your story should be interesting and in order (meaning that you’re not so busy throwing in your opinions that the story gets lost).
    I like a book that can take me away from reality. Yes, my characters get mad, kill, fight; but they also love, create, and become a better ‘person.’
    I like a quick read, something that’s entertaining and has a happy ending.
    With series, I believe that each book’s story should end. I recently read one that you had to read the next book in the series to find out what happened. I didn’t bother because I knew the next one would do the same thing. It’s nothing more than a cheap gimmick to sell books.
    Connie Terpack´s last blog post ..Just Pressed: New Books by Authors on WordPress.com

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    • says

      Hi Connie, thanks for your comment! There is quite a debate about escaping through fiction or exploring the world through fiction. I think you’re right that the best fiction does need to be interesting and draw the reader in on an emotional and experiential level, otherwise it’s not very good fiction. This can be a hard balance to achieve, because readers have different tastes on that balance. I think what I’m aiming to do, as I get better at my craft, is somehow be escapist and exploring at the same time. It’s one of the advantages of fantasy fiction, because you can write imaginatively to draw up a new world or a new angle on the world for a reader, but you can still explore themes of interest to humans at the same time. Kind of a tall order to get that right, though. :) It’s interesting what you say about happy endings. Do you think you like them because you feel like it’s important to give the reader a positive experience, or because you believe happy endings ring true to your experience of the world, or both? I was working on my most recent novel Lone Cypress last year and couldn’t get the tone right, because I was exploring some tough things I had gone through and didn’t really know if I believed in happy endings at the time, or thought maybe a happy ending would be sappy for this story. In the end the story just demanded it, and I realized it was me that was going through something and coming out the other side to discover I believed in happy endings. Then I could give the book the ending I thought really fit. So, I gave it a happy ending because I believed it rang true, but many books give happy endings because they want the reading experience to be a positive one for readers. So many decisions. :)
      Laura K. Cowan´s last blog post ..Supernatural Psychological Romantic Story of Healing, Lone Cypress, FREE For 5 Days

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  13. says

    If you write from the heart, you’ll have the vision. But you also should start with a clear vision so your heart can get lost in the idea.

    Wandering will happen, it’s part of the creative process, but then (as Stephen King would say) you have to take out all the stuff that’s not the story.

    What remains is powerful and deep.
    Jack Cordwell´s last blog post ..Ah, the Bliss of Writing!

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