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2502, 2019

The Value of Latent Christian Literature

February 25th, 2019|

The following essay was published in the Winter 2019 Edition of Colloquy, a magazine by Gutenberg College, my alma mater. 

One of my favorite quotes about literature comes from British author C.S. Lewis, who once wrote that “What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent.”

The word latent comes from latēre, which in Latin means “to lie hidden,” as when something is “present but not visible, apparent, or actualized.” The word reminds me of Søren Kierkegaard’s philosophical concept of indirect communication, which “was designed to sever the reliance of the reader on the authority of the author,” according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. “The point of indirect communication is to position the reader to relate to the truth with appropriate passion, rather than to communicate the truth as such.”

As both an author and Gutenberg graduate, I couldn’t agree more with that concept in today’s media-saturated, results-driven, unreflective world. Just look at the explosion of “Christian” literature both online and in traditional bookstores that touts everything from Adulting 101: #Wisdom4Life (Josh Burnette) to Next Level Thinking: 10 Powerful Thoughts for a Successful and Abundant Life (Joel Osteen).

While these types of self-help books can have their place, as direct forms of communication they often lack the depth and reflection that C.S. Lewis was calling Christians to when they set pen to paper. Too many Christian authors today focus so much on surface-level facets of the Christian life that they fail to address those deeper and more pressing subjects facing the world today.

That’s why I decided to research, write, and publish a novel about one of those subjects: human trafficking. The Black Lens is a dark literary thriller that exposes the underbelly of sex trafficking in rural America. While my book is fiction, I strove to write deeply about the real world in an indirect, latent, and authentic way that wasn’t explicitly “Christian.” In fact, one of the most common questions I get from readers is why I as a believer decided to write about such a dark topic in the first place. It’s a great question and one I’ve reflected on ever since I started researching the subject more than five years ago. So, below are my three main reasons for writing The Black Lens.

To raise trafficking awareness

I have always wanted to use my story to raise awareness about sex trafficking. While this topic has received more press in the last few years, some people still don’t think trafficking happens often in the United States. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

The National Human Trafficking Hotline has documented at least 45,308 trafficking cases since 2007. It’s a harsh fact, but that’s why raising awareness is so key. And it’s why I decided to conduct more than three years of research on this subject. As a former reporter with a master’s degree in journalism, I personally interviewed more than a dozen survivors, social workers, and police officers.

That research paid off. During the past few years, several readers have told me they wanted to become more involved in fighting trafficking as a result of reading my debut novel. But the best feedback came from one recent Amazon reviewer—who is also a Gutenberg graduate. She said reading The Black Lens opened her eyes to this underground world and actually helped her prevent a potential trafficking situation:

“Since reading this, I have become more aware of the issues and the prevalence of human sex trafficking and have recently witnessed an (incident) at Disneyland Shopping District of someone preying on a young teen sitting alone waiting for her parents to finish shopping. I stepped in and made sure she was not alone and not targeted by the man asking her inappropriate questions and inviting her to help him with his bags to his car.”

The reviewer continues:

“I enjoyed the story line and the characters, but what I appreciated the most was the movement to bring the sinister world of sex trafficking into our awareness so that more can be done to protect our youth and change our own story line as a culture (that) does not allow the opportunity for these crimes to become a reality for future at risk youth.”

As an author, I couldn’t ask for anything more.

To take sin seriously

When you consider recent Christian literature—whether fiction or nonfiction—much of it doesn’t take sin seriously. These books focus so much on the truth of grace that they hide from the truth of evil. And yet if you spend any time reading the Old Testament, you discover that it’s filled with descriptions of evil. There is rape, incest, even torture. None of the authors glorified those crimes or described them in graphic detail, but they also didn’t shy away from them either. Why? Because they were trying to contrast the depth of man’s evil with the depth of God’s grace.

One of my favorite Christian authors from Gutenberg’s curriculum is Flannery O’Connor, who became famous for her dark, brutal, and violent short stories. She once wrote, “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” That’s great advice for every Christian writer. We need to contrast good and evil if we want to have any chance at engaging the world with our words—especially with such dark topics like sex trafficking.

To engage the arts

As created beings, Christians have so much to contribute to the arts—especially in the area of writing. For centuries, believers were at the forefront of art and culture. The Catholic Church sponsored some of the most famous artists of all times, such as Michelangelo. But for decades, Christians have retreated from the arts. I don’t know all the reasons, but author Francis Schaeffer (another one of my favorites from Gutenberg) once wrote, “I am afraid that as evangelicals, we think that a work of art only has value if we reduce it to a tract.”

Nothing could be farther from the truth. In The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis compares friendship with art, philosophy, and the universe, all of which are “unnecessary” and have “no survival value,” but each of which “is one of those things which give value to survival.” Literature is a form of art, so it too has no inherent survival value. But literature can give value to survival in unique and powerful ways. Think of the impact behind literature like Uncle Tom’s Cabin or To Kill a Mockingbird. Those latent novels affected so many people’s views of race and slavery in ways that direct communication never could.

One of my favorite books in the Bible is Esther because it reads like a work of modern fiction. It features a strong female heroine, romantic suspense, and even a murder plot. But most interestingly, the book doesn’t mention God once. Yet for those who have eyes to see, every sentence in the story points to God and gives value to the idea of surviving suffering.

My goal for The Black Lens was the same. I wrote it in an indirect and latent way for those who have eyes to see.

Get your copy of The Black Lens today on Amazon. If you’ve already read the book, please consider writing a short and honest review.

401, 2019

New Year, New Novel

January 4th, 2019|

It’s a new year, and I finally finished a draft of my new novel The Girl from Level 10. 

Those who read The Black Lens will recognize similar themes, but this is a very different story. Like Westworld and Ready Player One, my science fiction thriller explores the dark side of technology in the near future. Here is a short teaser for the book I recently submitted to Writer’s Digest 2nd Draft Critique Service that will eventually become part of my pitch to a literary agent:

Evaline wants freedom from The Games, an augmented reality competition where people can win a fortune by killing lifelike robots — like her — for sport. But each day, Chief Game Officer Ray Jackson sends human players to battle her and the other artificially intelligent androids in gladiator-style combats as thousands of fans watch live from The Arena. The Games occur in near-future America where millions of people have lost their jobs due to the rise of artificial intelligence and view this competition as a ticket out of poverty. It only grows worse for Evaline as each level becomes more violent, sponsors bet on the top players, and a secret gang of cyberterrorists tries to hack her mind so they can turn her body into a weapon of war in The Arena.

Fortunately, Evaline has two unlikely humans on her side. Games employee Daryl Miller finds himself developing feelings for Evaline each time he repairs her silicone body, which is manufactured out of synthetic organs and is even programmed to experience physical sensations like pain and pleasure. Technology reporter Lexi Blackstone doesn’t know Evaline, but she suspects foul play with the competition, especially when a top player suddenly goes missing.

The Games reach a breaking point in Level 10. It’s a brutal match between Evaline and one of the most popular players who has built a massive fan following on social media for his sadistic kills. During that final round, the cybercriminals finally gain control of Evaline’s mind so they can use her body as a weapon among thousands of fans. They force her to make the ultimate decision in self-consciousness: free herself — or save others.

I applied the same research and reporting skills to The Girl from Level 10 as I did to The Black Lens. For more than a year, I personally interviewed cybersecurity experts, virtual reality coders and even manufacturers of artificially intelligent robots. I wanted to create a new world, but still ground it in fact and reality.

The next step in the long publishing process is to submit my full manuscript to some beta readers and a professional for developmental editing.  However, I already received some encouraging feedback on my book’s synopsis from a Writer’s Digest 2nd Draft editor who has published more than a dozen novels and received the Forrest J Ackerman Award for lifetime achievement in science fiction:

“Thanks for sending us this impressive synopsis for a science fiction novel of the future. Gladitorial games of the future is not a new theme for science fiction, but you have updated the concept and increased the technology by an exponential factor.”

— John DeChancie, science fiction author and Writer’s Digest 2nd Draft editor

312, 2018

Follow The Black Lens film!

December 3rd, 2018|

Check out the official website for The Black Lens movie!

Kokosing River Productions is sharing the script right now with a casting agent in Hollywood and hoping to start filming sometime this winter. You can follow the film by signing up now on the website to get exclusive news and updates.

Matt Starr, the president and CEO of Kokosing River Productions, has teamed up with Director of Photography Dan Parsons to find the right director, actors and investors for a movie version of my debut novel.

This partnership came after the screenplay version of The Black Lens became a quarterfinalist in the Scriptapalooza Screenwriting Competition, thanks to the hard work and adaptation by Jon Anderegg. Anderegg’s script also placed third in the Oregon Independent Film Festival Screenplay Competition. 

In addition, it received both developmental editing and industry circulation by Script Pipeline executives after my novel beat out more than 1,300 other books to become a semifinalist in the national Book Pipeline movie competition.

Learn more about Kokosing River Productions here.

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Independent producer to turn The Black Lens novel into a film
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The Black Lens script places in national screenplay competition

1611, 2018

For those who struggle but don’t give up

November 16th, 2018|

The following is a guest blog post from Paul Curtin, my good friend and fellow author. Paul published O Negative in 2017 and plans to release his second novel this winter.

I’ve been quiet for a while. This wasn’t intentional.

I keep track of my writing on a full-year calendar. Every day I write, I mark an ‘X’ over that day. You can see my year below:

Not great. There are months where I wrote nothing. Weeks. Sputtering starts and then complete stoppage. Never getting momentum.

I’ll probably look back at 2018 as The Lost Year. In years past, I spent the fall and early winter drafting new novels. I spent the spring and summer editing, shaping older works into better condition, maybe asking feedback from beta readers or taking their feedback and editing again. This was my rhythm, and I loved it.

Then I released O Negative.

O Negative‘s production process took a lot out of me. By the time it was ready for release, I wasn’t even excited to be releasing a book anymore. It was kind of a—plop. Then nothing. Sales weren’t as good as I was expecting them to be (even with my modest expectations), but I thought, “It’s okay. I’ll release another book. Get momentum.”

And then I didn’t.

I struggled to do any work, writing next to nothing. Since March 2017, I haven’t produced more than 20,000 new words (a standard book is 80,000). Editing has been even more difficult. My next book (I’ll get to that soon), has been such a difficult slog that I didn’t want to even touch it most days.

If it hasn’t become clear so far (losing interest in things that once brought joy, lack of motivation, etc), I’ve been suffering with depression. Most days, I haven’t had the motivation to do much of anything. I didn’t want to write blogs. Didn’t want to write new material or edit older works. I just wanted to quit.

I think in some ways when writing became a business, I lost a lot of joy in doing it. Now there was pressure to get a new release out, to massage the algorithms for exposure (places like Amazon reward faster releases, for instance), to get momentum. I’ve spent countless nights laying in bed, feeling like I had dropped the ball and that I would never be a successful author. And I would wake in the morning and do nothing about it. I felt powerless.

You might notice that in October and November I’ve been much more active. And that’s because I’m finally getting my next book out. I’ll announce it tomorrow in a separate post, but you can expect its release in December.

The dedication in this new book is: “For those who struggle but don’t give up.” I don’t want to make it seem like I’m out of my funk and that the release of this new book is a triumph of my will. It isn’t. It’s just me putting one foot ahead of the other. I want to say I will post a lot more on this blog or be drafting new novels or editing older works (I hope all this to be true) but I know it will be a difficult. I don’t want to give up.

I’ll keep struggling, trying to put out the best work I can. It may take time, but I think it’ll be worth it.

Learn more about Paul Curtin at https://paulcurtinbooks.com/.

 

1610, 2018

Speaking at Shared Hope International’s 2018 JuST Conference

October 16th, 2018|

I am honored to be speaking at Shared Hope International’s 2018 JuST Conference as an official board member of She Has A Name.

With more than 1,000 people coming from over 40 states, this is the nation’s leading conference on juvenile sex trafficking. Presentations and workshops focus on skill-building, survivor experiences, cross-discipline collaboration, task force development, case studies and lessons learned.

Here is a brief summary of my presentation, which incorporates research I conducted through my work with both She Has A Name and The Black Lens novel:

Why do men solicit? That’s a complex question, but one we must strive to answer if we’re ever going to reduce the demand for juvenile sex trafficking in the United States. While some women pay for sex, the fact is, most of that demand is coming from men. No national or scientific research exists on the factors that fuel the demand for sex trafficking, but this class will explore some studies that have focused on the connection between issues like pornography and prostitution.

It will also offer 9 reasons why men solicit based on first-hand research I conducted during a John School program in Ohio for men who are mostly first-time offenders with no record of violence. The goal of this class and similar programs is to decrease the demand for paid sex, and hence, reduce the amount of human trafficking and sexual exploitation that occurs.

Learn more about the conference at Shared Hope International’s website and blog post.

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409, 2018

Kirkus Reviews covers The Black Lens

September 4th, 2018|

Kirkus Reviews — a New York magazine that has been reviewing the nation’s top publishers’ books since 1933 — just published a story about The Black Lens novel. Thanks to Boyle & DaltonWriter’s Digest and Book Pipeline for even making this interview with Paris-based writer Rhett Morgan possible in the first place:

While working as a journalist in Central Oregon, Christopher Stollar stumbled on rumors of a sex trafficking ring at a local truck stop. Although his investigation led to nothing concrete, he remained haunted by the grim reality of modern-day slavery in America.

He delved into the subject and, three years later, turned his research into the dark thriller The Black Lens. This self-published debut earned grand prize in the 2016 Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards and beat out more than 1,900 other books in the Book Pipeline competition. That exposure and Stollar’s dedication (he has pledged to donate 10 percent of all earnings to organizations combating sex trafficking) have led to an option for an indie film from Stollar’s adaptation of the novel. He spoke with us about crafting such a story, trying to use it for good, and using self-publishing to get it in front of readers.

What drew you to write The Black Lens?

I wrote this book because I wanted to tell a compelling story that also sheds light on the dark underworld of human trafficking. The more I learned about modern slavery, the more I wanted to fight it. And as a writer, I knew that words were my best weapon. They would help me give a voice to the victims I interviewed.

Could you tell me a little about your research process?

I conducted over a dozen interviews with survivors, social workers, and police officers, asking them about 50 questions. I also did an eight-hour ride-along with an officer during the day and several ride-alongs at night with social workers who delivered gift bags to victims on the street. I did that because I wanted to ground this book in reality.

What made you decide that a thriller was the best approach to this story?

The crime-thriller genre made the most sense to me because at its core, sex trafficking is a crime that impacts millions of people. I also thought this genre would be a powerful way of introducing the concept to readers as a story on an emotional level rather than writing a nonfiction book that regurgitates hard facts about this crime.

What makes The Black Lens stand out from other thrillers?

I realized that many nonfiction books about trafficking already existed. But good novels were lacking, especially in the thriller genre. The few works of fiction that did address the topic took place mostly overseas or in major U.S. cities like New York—not rural America. So I realized that my book would meet a unique need in the marketplace while also telling a thrilling story that keeps readers turning the pages.

What made self-publishing a good fit for The Black Lens?

I liked the entrepreneurial challenge of both telling a great story and creating a high-quality product that would meet a unique need in the marketplace. I decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund the cost of self-publishing the book through Boyle & Dalton. That proved to me there was a strong desire for my story and product, regardless of the form of publishing. And it gave me the confidence I needed to go through the rigorous developmental editing of Columbus Publishing Lab prior to publishing by Boyle & Dalton.

What are your plans for your next project?

I just finished a draft of my second novel, The Girl from Level 10. Those who read The Black Lens will recognize similar themes woven throughout, but this is a very different story. Like Westworld and Ready Player One, my dystopian science-fiction thriller explores the dark side of technology in the near future (in Columbus, Ohio, to be exact).

Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris. Read the full article here.