Interview: Rod Pennington on writing spiritual novels

Rod Pennington, co-author of the highly successful Fourth Awakening series, offers his insight on the challenges of writing a spiritual novel, what’s in store for the series, and how Kindle is ushering in a Golden Age of fiction. Read a review of The Fourth Awakening.

What prompted you and Dr. Jeffery A. Martin to write The Fourth Awakening?

Jeffery A. Martin and Rod Pennington, "The Fourth Awakening" spiritual novel

Jeffery and Rod at Bouchercon in 2009

Jeffery was up at Harvard working on yet another one of his advanced degrees and was doing some cutting-edge research on the way the mind works and the power of thought. He wanted to share his research but he had concluded that the people interested in it would be limited to academia or, if he toned it down, non-fiction readers. Jeffery knew I had written a bunch of novels and was making a nice living as a ghostwriter. I proposed we combine our strengths and try to reach a new, much larger audience – fiction readers. I suggested we craft a compelling suspense story with a bit of Jeffery’s research sprinkled in. We wanted to give people something to think about and possibly open their minds to new possibilities. But for it to work I had to write a novel compelling enough to suspend reality for those who weren’t buying the whole “power of thought” concept.

How did you and Jeffery begin working together?

Jeffery and I both have a wide range of interests and in addition to being a brilliant academic researcher he’s pretty much “Rain Man” when it comes to computers. Jeffery has written all or part of nearly two dozen non-fiction computer science books and he has about every technical certification available to man. Our paths first crossed about fifteen years ago. He had just finished setting a local television station for Sony and he had met a lovely young lady and had decided to stay in Cincinnati. He was looking for something to do when I hired him as a technical instructor for a company I was working for. We immediately hit it off and we’ve been close friends and business partners ever since.

What are the challenges involved in writing a spiritual novel?

The hardest element to overcome was the conscious decision made early on that the books would contain no violence, no foul language and no gratuitous sex. Combine that with a calm or enlightened protagonist like a Michael Walker and it’s hard to keep the level of suspense high enough to drive a novel-length story. Fiction is friction. If the sparks don’t fly it is tough to keep the reader engaged.

Whether you’re reading a novel or watching TV or a movie, in most thrillers, mysteries or suspense stories there’s a bleeding body on the sidewalk in the first act. Take that element away and it’s tough to build suspense. In The Fourth Awakening and The Gathering Darkness I was able to use the expectation of violence to build the tension. I put thinly veiled threats throughout the books but instead of violence I used unexpected plot twists to drive the story. My goal is to end each chapter with a cliffhanger that will make the reader want to go on to the next chapter. My favorite Amazon reviews are from readers who said they lost a night’s sleep because they couldn’t put the book down.

Can you tell us more about your new eBook, Secrets to Writing a Spiritual Novel?

I’ve taught fiction writing off and on for a number of years, including a stint as an instructor in the Writer’s Digest Novel Writing Workshop.  Lately when I speak at writers’ conferences I’ve been talking about the trials and tribulations of crafting a spiritual novel. Recently I stumbled across a group that is trying to encourage people to write spiritually based books. I contacted them and asked if they would have any interest in me converting my class notes to a short eBook on how to write in this genre. They were enthused by the prospect so I went ahead and created a Kindle edition (available on Amazon October 24, 2011).

While a good portion of this book is based on how to craft a spiritual novel, it also contains many practical tips to help anyone trying to write a book no matter what genre they are in.

Did your writing style or approach change between The Fourth Awakening and the recently released sequel, The Gathering Darkness?

Not really. Having spent many years as a screenwriter I write dialogue-intensive novels. I let the characters tell the story in their own words instead of some unseen but omnipotent narrator telling the reader what’s going on. I was able to convey a ton of information by having the highly skeptical Penelope and Walker verbally spar.

The difference between the two books is The Fourth Awakening sets up the science and the history for the entire series. The Gathering Darkness is a much more personal story. Like so many, Penelope had started down the path to enlightenment but lost her way.

What are you planning for the third novel in the series? Will there be more?

That depends on the readers. We only have two ways to measure if a novel is resonating with our target audience – sales and the number of people willing to post Amazon reviews. If The Fourth Awakening hadn’t caught fire earlier this year – we sold more copies in the three months over the summer than we had in the previous two years – The Gathering Darkness would have never have been released.  So far the sales for The Gathering Darkness have been okay – it went to #1 in a UK Kindle category – but the lack of Amazon reviews is troubling. If people don’t feel strongly enough about a book to take five minutes to write a fifty-word review then clearly we missed the mark.

Jeffery and I have already agreed on the general outline and theme for the next book, Return to the Light, but it has been pushed back on my writing schedule. I have no ego when it comes to these books but until I see more sales and Amazon reviews it will be difficult for me to justify spending six months on a new book when no one is getting excited about the current one.

You’ve published in a variety of genres, from the very spiritual Forth Awakening series to your recently released A Family Reunion, a dark comedy about a dysfunctional family of world-class assassins. What genre has challenged you most?

I would say the spiritual genre is more challenging since my characters never get to blow their stacks and punch someone.

I write what I enjoy reading and my style doesn’t change much no matter what genre I currently am dabbling in. I like mouthy, interesting characters and stories that are light on narrative and long on dialogue. The lightning paced and tongue-in-cheek “Charon Family” series is a nice counterbalance to the more serious Fourth Awakening series.

It looks like many of your recent works have been released on Kindle/eBook only. Have you given up on traditional publishing?

Kindle is going to usher in a new Golden Age of fiction to rival the 1930s to 1960s. From Louis L’Amour westerns, to Raymond Chandler-style hardboiled mysteries, to incredible science fiction, you could get anything you wanted for 35 cents on the spinning rack at your local drug store. As the cost of printing and distribution began to rise fifty years ago these “pulp” books and magazines couldn’t compete with “free” TV so it dried up. I see a new renaissance on the horizon.

For near-zero cost, with no printing or shipping, authors can get their work in the public domain in a matter of days instead of months or even years. While a new day is dawning, it’s not quite here yet. We released The Gathering Darkness as a Kindle exclusive and people starting lighting up my inbox. A print edition will be available on November 15th.

I have completely given up on the dinosaur publishing industry. The Fourth Awakening will sell over 50,000 copies this year and if it had been published by one of the NYC big houses it would already be back listed and would have hit the remainder table of Barnes and Noble two years ago.

What can we expect to see next?

Next up is another “Charon Family Adventure” then I have an interesting YA spiritual novel in the works. After that, I’ll either start on another Charon title or the third Fourth Awakening book.

Rod Pennington has published eight novels and sold multiple screenplays. In addition to the Fourth Awakening series he recently launched a new dark comedy series about a dysfunctional family of four of the world’s best assassins working as the enforcement arm for a shadowy Zen cabal that has been around for thousands of years: A Family Reunion (The First Charon Family Adventure).

Jeffery A. Martin, PhD, is a Harvard-trained scholar specializing in higher states of consciousness. He is the author, co-author, or contributor to over twenty books in addition to numerous other scholarly and non-scholarly publications, videos, audio, and other media. The methods and science in the Fourth Awakening series that can have an immediate impact on most readers’ lives can be found in his recent book, The God Formula: A simple scientifically proven blueprint that has transformed millions of lives.

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2 thoughts on “Interview: Rod Pennington on writing spiritual novels

  1. Pingback: Avoid the common mistake spiritual novelists make « Fiction for a New Age

  2. Pingback: Fourth Awakening: New series features enlightened souls « Fiction for a New Age

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