Ask the Agent: Walking the Line

Dear Rachelle,

I have written a crime mystery that involves abuse, revenge, a murder, inappropriate conduct by a pastor, and a cover-up. There is no sex in the story, but there is some rough language. There is a message of redemption and truth.

I’m not sure if this is CBA or ABA. What I think I have here is a “tweener.” The nature of the story and the language might be objectionable to the Christian market. Yet it’s probably too “Christian” of a story for the mainstream market. I’d be grateful for your impression of this unique situation.

Puzzled Writer


Dear Puzzled,

Welcome to the world of CBA publishing! You’ve discovered the tightrope that many Christian writers walk, especially writers who want to veer outside the sanitized topics that we feel comfortable discussing in church. Anybody who wants to write about the world as it is is faced with these decisions. Here’s an example.

I’m working with a client who has a terrific suspense novel. The Christian message is pretty strong but the violence is also graphic and disturbing. The spiritual aspects render it unsuitable for the general market (because general market editors don’t go in for overt Christian language) but the depictions of the violence may be too strong for the Christian market. It’s dark and may be seen as glorifying it rather than simply depicting it.

So I have to ask the author a question: What’s more important to you? The violence or the Christian message? He obviously wants to convey his Christian message amidst the messy reality of our violent world. He doesn’t want to hide his Christian worldview. So I’m advising him to slightly tone down the violent parts, just enough so that it doesn’t completely scare editors away, and pitch it in CBA.

Since I’m the agent, not an in-house editor, I will edit this just enough to where I’m pretty sure the violence won’t be an immediate dealbreaker for an acquiring editor. When the book is sold, the publishing house will make sure the book is edited to their specifications, which may allow for a great deal of disturbing violence, or may require toning it down.

And in case you’re wondering, my correspondence with any editor interested in acquiring the book would hopefully reveal how much they’re anticipating the book needs to be edited. So the author will be able to make a somewhat informed decision as to whether to accept an offer from a publisher.

If you are writing a Christian book that contains questionable elements, you might choose to tone down the language or other difficult elements just enough that you think it won’t totally scare away an agent or editor (unless you’d rather try to hide your message and sell it in ABA). Alternatively, you can just submit it the way it is and see what kind of responses you get. If the writing is compelling and the story is intriguing, most agents won’t let a few instances of language, sex, or violence become dealbreakers. They may agree to take on the book, and help you edit appropriately. If your questionable elements are cited as reasons for rejection, this will be helpful information.

Similar to the “length” issue we discussed last week, agents and editors will ask themselves, Is this story fantastic enough that I’m willing to fight for it despite some issues?

Stay flexible. Be aware that some changes may be required for publication, and don’t be married to every single word you’ve written. That’s just the cost of doing business. But also understand that the editor’s intent is not to strip your book of it’s uniqueness or its heart, and definitely not to remove your voice. The goal is to make it the best book possible for the specific audience targeted. While edits are often painful, I’ve rarely come across an author who regretted them in the end.

Photo credit:

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  3. Sarahlynn on June 6, 2008 at 1:05 AM

    >As a writer at the (hopeful!) beginning of my career, I’m doing what I can do: telling the stories I want to tell. I’m trying to put worries about how and where my books will sell aside until later, after I have a novel or two polished to my satisfaction.

    I’m writing a series of mysteries named after traditional Christian hymns. Christianity is very importantant throughout the stories (the main character is Presbyterian and lives next door to her church) but another of the important characters is gay. So . . . I’m thinking not so much CBA. But we’ll see how each novel looks after I finish it, I guess!

  4. MelanieWrites on June 3, 2008 at 9:17 PM

    >I interviewed Matt Bronleewe after “Illuminated” came out. One character is a hit man who studies biographies of serial killers to maximize the killing experience. I asked Bronleewe about the editorial response, and he said it wasn’t nearly as bad as his agent expected. Thomas Nelson published it, if I remember correctly.

    Then again, he’s Matt Bronleewe, former Jars of Clay member and producer for some of the best acts in Christian music, so maybe he had built-in leeway.

  5. Timothy Fish on June 3, 2008 at 9:17 PM

    >Christianese, in my opinion, has ruined many books that could have been very good stories. That and characters that laugh at the author’s jokes.

  6. Rachelle on June 3, 2008 at 7:28 PM

    >Yes, Nicole’s right. It’s all in how you handle it. As always.

  7. Nicole on June 3, 2008 at 7:25 PM

    >”The sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll at the beginning throw it out of that market completely.”

    I don’t think this is a slam dunk for not being CBA material. Perhaps Rachelle can verify this. Maybe in the past such things were not considered and in some imprints they are not allowed, but there are sexual abuse issues, meth labs and drug addictions, alcoholism, adultery, etc.–all of these topics are addressed in recent CBA novels.

  8. christa allan on June 3, 2008 at 6:42 PM

    >Well, I guess my lamp’s been hiding under a bushel, and I’m not savvy when it comes to editor-speak.

    Back to fiction. . .

  9. Anonymous on June 3, 2008 at 5:25 PM

    >Tone it down or crank it up? Preferably, I like to crank it up. Not necessarily in a bad way. As far as violence goes, simply tell it as it happens without getting psycho. I think a great example is the way Jerry Jenkins does in the Left Behind Series.
    Ask yourself what is necessary to sell the story and make things work. As far as language goes, this is one place where you should be careful. Again, ask yourself is it necessary? How many times have you watched a movie and thought ‘that was a great movie – I just wish it didn’t have all that foul language?
    Most of the time, you’ll find that profanity is just simply not needed.
    And in the end, I like a quote that Tom Clancy said in a book about editing. He said, “Just tell the da$# story.”
    In my words, “Just tell the story.”
    Remember, the Bible is filled with violence, but doesn’t have profanity. Unless it’s referring to a donkey or something. But we all know what’s going on there.

  10. R.E. on June 3, 2008 at 3:14 PM

    >Here are a few choice terms in Christianese:

    They left out my two favorites: “I have a heart for” and “I’m convicted” or any other use of “convicted” that isn’t followed by “of murder in the first degree.”

    By the way, does any man on this earth say “I have a heart for…” or is that a purely female thing?

    My sister and I once coined the term “Chretrosexual” to mean “Christian metrosexual.” I think “have a heart for” would be a definite Chretrosexual term.

  11. Rachelle on June 3, 2008 at 1:17 PM

    >Christa, editors use the term “Christianese” ALL the time, and never in a good light!

  12. christa on June 3, 2008 at 1:15 PM



    Now I have a title for a non-fiction book, Christianese for the UnChristians: A Cross Dictionary

    (hmm…even the pun works…)

  13. XDPaul on June 3, 2008 at 10:46 AM

    >Here’s an alternative plan – if your story contains sex and violence and you are pitching it to the CBA market, crank it up.

    Then, the agent can feel as if their edits have been taken seriously, and the publisher can even tone it down a little more, and then the author actually gets the story he intended through to publications. I’m not saying this to make busy work for the lines of editors – quite the contrary. I’m saying it because through the process of seeing how gratuitous a work can go, everyone – author, agent and editor, can reign the story in to just the proper level.

    Editing too early (as opposed to proofing and simple self-editing) is poisonous to me. I’m happy to take edits from the other professional quarters: quite good at it, in fact, but when I’m pitching, I go all out. In my experience, the pros like Rachelle are able to overlook excess, but can become bored with the process of bolstering the timid.

    Just a thought.

  14. Jessica on June 3, 2008 at 9:50 AM

    >Yes Rachelle, why are you NOT on our eastern, western, central time. Sheesh . . .
    This is a great post. As a reader, cussing in secular books doesn’t bother me. Or I should say, secular characters cussing doesn’t bother me. If there’s a christian character cussing, I don’t like to read the actual words. Imply it. And don’t make it okay. I think Ted Dekker gets pretty graphic in the Christian market. His second book was graphic so I don’t think it has to do with him being a bestseller, but rather that his use of darkness glorifies God. Only my opinion 🙂
    BTW, I hate christianese. Sounds so faky. But that’s just me. 🙂 I’m interested to see other people’s opinions here. Thanks Rachelle.

  15. Kat Harris on June 3, 2008 at 9:30 AM

    >From now on, all of your blog posts should be done at 11:51:33 p.m. and not a second later. 😉

    I get what you’re saying about the eastern and new age language stuff. But, IMHO, I believe some in the general market forget there is a huge audience between the coasts whose values are still based on Christianity. I realize there’s little I can do about that, and that’s why I’m flexible in editing as long as the integrity of the characters remain intact.

    Having said that are mainstream market editors turned off by Christian characters in general?

    Just curious. Do you realize how much fun your blog readers have picking your brain?

  16. Rachelle on June 3, 2008 at 9:23 AM

    “sometimes they go to buy a book to stock, see the house, know its Christian and pass it by…”

    But who is “they”? Not B&N or Borders, not the big box stores, because that’s not how they buy. So the statement doesn’t apply to the bulk of secular retailers. This could apply to small (“mom & pop”) bookstores who order through Ingram or other distributors… but mostly I believe this is an outdated notion of how sales to retailers work. Christian publishers now routinely sell their books direct to the big secular retailers, i.e. a sales rep from the publisher has an actual sit-down meeting with the buyer.

    Awesome questions! There is no single “Christian message” we’re talking about here, and in fact some writers’ ideas of a Christian message may completely contradict what someone else thinks of as the basic Christian message. Also, different books have different messages as there are so MANY different “Christian” truths to share with the world! Some are deeply theological, i.e. Jesus is God, others are more general, i.e. themes of redemption, forgiveness, etc. I think your last sentence most accurately captures the way I see it… every author has their own message and they will need to find the right wording to convey it.

  17. Anonymous on June 3, 2008 at 9:03 AM

    >Your response to my second to last paragraph was interesting to me…because it came an “insider” an editor at a publishing house..

    that sometimes they go to buy a book to stock, see the house, know its christian and pass it by….

    Maybe a good blog topic!


  18. Wendy Melchior on June 3, 2008 at 9:00 AM

    >Here’s another question: What is the common “Christian message” we seem to be discussing here? I am not trying to play devil’s advocate, but I bet we may define it differently. What is it that we claim to be overtly and/or subtly revealing as CBA authors or Christian authors in the mainstream? Jesus is God? Transformation is possible? Abundant life exists? There is hope? What? Once it is defined (and I suspect that, although mostly static, some of it may be subjective) perhaps we can better figure out what language to use to express it. Or are there multiple messages associated with the Christian worldview that require lots of differing words and styles?

  19. Rachelle on June 3, 2008 at 8:54 AM

    >Kat —
    I don’t think the problem is with “general market editors” but with our culture itself. Editors in all areas of publishing are simply trying to find the books that fit their market, and as you know, our culture is really big on eastern and new age spiritual language, but not Christian language.

    Jim, see my posts:
    Why Does CBA Exist?
    The Purpose of Christian Books

    I can’t believe it matters to anyone what time I post! Sheesh, I feel like I’m being asked to justify every aspect of my very existence. But for what it’s worth, I’ve settled on midnight posts and have been doing that for a week or so now.

    And regarding the Christianese, it’s common for editors to tone down the Christianese even in overtly Christian books. It often comes off as stereotypical evangelical-speak and we prefer plain English. We also recognize the possibility that the book may be read by nonbelievers and we want it to be a strong witness as opposed to a turnoff. Especially with nonfiction how-to… Christians might want to handle their finances better or keep their houses cleaner and they want it to come from a Christian source but they don’t necessarily need Christianese to get the help they need.

    Your 2nd to last paragraph (“I guess bookstores will often see the christian publisher…”) isn’t an accurate picture of how it works but I don’t have time to explain it all right now.

  20. Anonymous on June 3, 2008 at 8:34 AM


    1) did we go back to daytime posts?

    2) I have an intersting experience:
    I write non fiction CBA, and with my second book was asked to tone down the christianese…to take out overt christian phrasiology…that people in CBA were buying my book to be a better..(my topic)..not a better christian..

    I guess bookstores will often see the christian publisher and pass a book by from ordering so the goal was to deliver my christian message without using too much christian language…

    is this interesting?

  21. Jim on June 3, 2008 at 7:25 AM

    What are your thoughts on the other approach: “tone down the overt Christian language”? I personally don’t like a watered down message, but if the intent is to reach the lost vs. strengthen the saved, would you ever suggest that approach? I’ve seen some Christian media products that chose to “tone it down” and I was disappointed the Christian message wasn’t more overt. However, I know that some people feel such products do better at reaching a non-Christian market.


  22. Kat Harris on June 3, 2008 at 7:23 AM

    >And how frustrating it is to be a new writer walking that tightrope!

    I decided a long time ago that there is no way my story would fit in with CBA. The sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll at the beginning throw it out of that market completely.

    But how is a new writer supposed to know what makes up the “overt Christian language” that turns general market editors off?

    I’ve been a Christian my entire life. It permeates how I think, how I speak and how I write, and I’m not the only one out here like that.

    I remain flexible with what I write.

    I don’t understand why editors in the general market don’t pay attention to the enormous amount of people who are “Closet Christians” that would love unsantized stories about redemption?

  23. Rachelle on June 3, 2008 at 6:18 AM

    >CBA stands for Christian Booksellers Association but the term is used to refer to the entire Christian publishing and bookselling industry.

    ABA stands for American Booksellers Association but the term is used to refer to the entire mainstream publishing and bookselling industry.

  24. beth on June 3, 2008 at 5:56 AM

    >This may be a stupid question, but what’s ABA and CBA?