I’m Not Dead

Although the silence of my blog might have indicated I might have. I’ve been busy! I’m rewriting a sequel — which may seem kinda silly since the first one isn’t published, yet. A friend read the first one and asked to read the second. I realized that I should probably polish the second one before sharing it, though. I’m about a third done.

I’m also co-editing a flash fiction magazine called Havok. The first edition will be released January, 2019, so if you like flash fiction in multiple genres (mystery, sci-fi, fantasy, comedy, and thriller), go check it out. So far the stories we’ve acquired are amazing (and no, I’m not getting paid to write that). For the first month alone we received over a dozen stories in the fantasy genre alone, so even for the first edition, there’s no shortage of stories.

Now I need get over this cold my son gave me yesterday. I accomplish a lot more when I’m not sneezing and coughing all over my computer.

Agendas in Stories. Good or Bad?

When I first started writing, specifically Christian Fiction, I went to many Christian writers conferences. Out of all the classes I attended, one piece of advice was stressed above all others: Don’t preach. At the same time, many agents and publishers ask one question about the story: What’s the main message or take-away?

It seems like a contradiction, but it’s not. As I’ve written previously, stories matter, not because of the message, per se, but because they’re engrossing, entertaining, and sometimes terrifying. Stories immerse us into worlds and cultures we’ve never experienced, and give us characters we can love, hate, and everything in between.

Should all stories contain a message? No, but I also think few stories don’t have a message, however subtle. Like it or not, writers can’t help but bring their own biases, and yes, agendas to their stories.

For instance, I wrote my first novel because I was frustrated with the current selection of stories in my favorite genres. At the time (the early 2000s) I found little to no Christian science fiction, and few science fiction stories where God played any role at all. Most science fiction, in fact, was by and large hostile to any religion or idea of a higher power beyond a Force or ethereal Universe.

As I was silently lamenting my frustration, a little voice in my head said, “Then you write it.”

I doubt I’m alone in writing certain stories out of similar frustrations.

Plus it’s difficult to find stories without some message, even (perhaps especially) a lot of classics: George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” and “1984,” Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451,” Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World,” Charles Dicken’s “Oliver Twist” and “A Christmas Carol,” and Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.” I could name a hundred others.

While many of the messages the authors sought to convey shined through, I doubt many readers would call them preachy. The plot, setting, and characters always came first.

All that said, a few days ago I saw the following conversation on Twitter (with permission):

“The best stories have no agendas. They’re not shoving social justice down our throats or giving us a limited narrative to make us learn. They just grip us with their excellence and beauty, the thrill of their surprises and the poignancy of their narratives. #books #writer” ~ Jessi Lyn Robbins (@jessilynrobbins)

And:

“I think I can safely say I’ve never learned anything from a book that set out to make me learn a lesson. Well, maybe I learned never to read anything else by that author.” ~ Gillian M Kendall (@GillianMKendall)

Does that mean I disagree with them both? Based on what I’ve written so far and my response below, you might think so:

“It depends on the story and how it’s written. I read a book where the MC struggled with clinical depression. I used to silently scoff at those who suffered (I’m a pick-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps kind of person). I’ve never scoffed (silently or otherwise) at sufferers since.”

Ms. Robbins graciously responded: “From the sound of it, I’m not sure that book has the kind of agenda I’m talking about. It sounds like it’s extremely well-researched and well written with serious subject material that made you really feel something. Agenda books are not written like that. They’re not genuine.”

To which I added: “Perhaps. I agree too many books have “social justice” agendas. They make me leery of reading newer books. When I want to be preached to, I’ll go to church. Then again, if someone wants to add a message, write it in a way that I find it on my own. Don’t bust my head open with it.”

So no, I don’t disagree with either Ms. Robbins or Ms. Kendall. They both are expressing the same frustrations I have with so many newer books. The authors writing agenda-driven stories haven’t learned the lesson that I learned so many years ago: Don’t preach.

Their — and my — complaint is when the agenda or message becomes more important than the story. Too many seek to convert the reader through intellectual and emotional force instead of inviting the reader to see a different point of view through the plot and characters.

Stories should be an invitation, not an invasion, because the former shows trust in the reader whereas the latter does not.

UPDATED: “Moby Dick” was written by Herman Melville (I accidentally attributed it to Charles Dickens).

An Update on Story Matters

If you haven’t read my previous entry, yet, I recommend you do before continuing (https://almarquardt.blog/2018/10/22/story-matters/).

I have since discovered that the last books will be completed by another author.

In the meantime, if you enjoy fast-paced epic fantasy with science fiction elements, and with deep, colorful characters struggling to find their way in worlds they never before imagined, I highly recommend you check them out. The first novel can be picked up on Amazon for a mere $0.99.

To find out more about Brandon Barr and his “Song of the Worlds” series, check out the attached link.

My thanks to Brandon for writing such a fabulous and memorable story, and to #BrandonsBuddies for taking up the torch on his behalf.

https://www.facebook.com/EpicFantasyFanatics/posts/569164893515956

Or if you don’t use Facebook:

http://epicfantasyfanatics.com/brandons-buddies/

Taking Pride

“I am proud to be a woman!”

Even as a woman, statements like that make me cringe. I take pride in many things; being a woman is not one of them. The answer is simple: I didn’t choose it. Do I like being a woman? Sure! Granted I have no experience being anything else, but I still wouldn’t change it if given the chance.

Taking pride in anything that requires no action on my part is foolish. How many of us take pride in our eye color, the fact our innards work how they’re supposed to, or that we breathe? How is taking pride in my genitalia and other genetic traits any different?

Other things I don’t take pride in: any other physical features, my heritage, or my ancestor’s accomplishments. I am responsible for none of that, so claiming it for myself isn’t right. It also diminishes those who did the work.

While I didn’t choose the country I was born in, I can still take pride in that, because I choose to stay. I also contribute to my country, my state and community’s success through my hard work, purchasing ability and voting in elections.

I take pride in my work, my home and immediate family, because my success is theirs, and their success is at least partially mine.

What I’d like to see, instead of claiming pride in our sex, heritage, etc., we express our gratitude to God for creating us the way he did.

It was You who created my conscience; You fashioned me in my mother’s womb.

“I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Your work is wonderful; I know it very well.

“My frame was not concealed from You when I was shaped in a hidden place, knit together in the recesses of the earth.

“Your eyes saw my unformed limbs; they were all recorded in Your book; in due time they were formed, to the very last one of them.” ~ Psalms 139:13-16

Story Matters

An author recently posted on Facebook asking for feedback on one of his series. Unable to turn down an opportunity to read a book in one of my favorite genres (two actually. The series is a combination of sci-fi and fantasy), I eagerly accepted.

I ended up loving the story and characters, and the author graciously sent me the other two in the series as well as a prequel novella.

In one of the emails, he mentioned that he was pushing the release of the final two (out of five) due to an illness. I was bummed, but I also know the importance of one’s health takes precedence.

Yesterday, the author posted that his cancer had returned, and the doctors gave him about two months to live.

My completely selfish response was what you might expect. I thought, “Oh, no! I’ll never read the rest of the series now!”

As you also might expect, I mentally berated myself for thinking such a thing. I did post a comment saying that I would pray for him and his family, but it felt hollow as I typed.

Do I want him healed, or if not, that his family experiences God’s strength and comfort? Absolutely. But my prayers still feel tainted by my selfish and silly desire to read the final books, when a man is dying and a family is soon devastated. What’s an incomplete series compared to that?

Or am I wrong?

I heard a story years ago where a woman dying of cancer wrote Stephen King. She asked him to tell her what happened at the end of his “Dark Tower” series, because she wouldn’t live long enough to read the remaining — and as yet unreleased — books.

Sadly, he couldn’t answer, because even he didn’t know at the time.

Studies have found that those who read fiction are statistically more empathetic. Understandable when you think about it.

When reading about fictional characters, we learn their thoughts, motivations, loves, hates, fears and desires. Something we don’t always see or get in real life, because few of us lay ourselves bare with the exception of a scant few — if that. As we read, we place ourselves in the shoes of the characters, and we can’t help but correlate their experiences, thoughts and feelings into our own life and those around us.

To give an example, I’ve never been clinically depressed. I didn’t understand how debilitating it can be, and I used to quietly scoff at those who did. Until I read “Becoming Olivia” by Roxanne Henke. The book is about Olivia who has a great life, but can’t shake the depression that seemed to come out of nowhere.

After reading it, I will never again scoff at anyone who suffers from depression again.

Now it may seem at this point that I changed subjects on you. First I talked about selfish prayers, then I jumped to how stories make us more empathetic.

What both illustrate is the importance of stories in our life. They not only entertain, but can convey certain truths. Stories, like most other arts engage us emotionally, spiritually and intellectually. They can also live beyond the creator’s own life. Plus we never want the story to simply stop with no end in sight.

We are built to both create and listen to or read stories. They’ve been used since the advent of language to remember our past as well as convey truth. Even non-Christians know the stories of Adam and Eve, Noah’s ark, and Jonah and the whale (although technically, it was a fish). Whether they literally happened is always up for debate, but their messages still stand many millennia later. The same goes for Dicken’s “Oliver Twist,” and “A Christmas Carol,” Shakespeare’s plays, many Greek tragedies, and countless others.

Stories matter. My selfish response and a dying woman’s letter is evidence of that.

Still, I do hope God will ignore my selfishness behind the words of my prayers, because I never want to see a person die so soon, and his/her family left to pick up the pieces.

The Devil of Pride

I recently engaged in a conversation on Twitter about why the mere statement of a scientific fact makes some people go into a near apoplectic rage (yes, I write it that way because I wanted to use “apoplectic”).

More accurately, many of the responses seemed angry if not enraged. My opponent admitted that the fact itself didn’t anger him so much as the political motive behind it.

I responded, “I don’t understand why it should. Facts help us learn to question our current beliefs; that we could be wrong — or we could be right, and we now have more confidence that our opinions have real merit. We should all be willing to learn, because that’s how we grow.

“Who presents those facts, and their perceived motives behind those facts should be irrelevant. If one of my opponents presented such a fact, while I may be initially irritated, I will set aside my emotional reaction and thank him/her for it.

“Perhaps that’s just me.”

After I wrote that I realized if I could point out a single problem with our society, it’s pride. When we succumb to the devil of pride, we become so sure of our beliefs, we grow rigid, unable and unwilling to grow, learn or change. Our intellectual opponents we soon see as our enemy, and that enemy must be destroyed at all cost.

Part of pride results in depending more on our emotions instead of facts and logic. We should then not be surprised when we and others react emotionally when we see facts that contradict those emotions.

Proverbs 16:18 says, “Pride goes before ruin, arrogance before failure.” (TNK)

I also like Proverbs 16:16: “How much better to acquire wisdom than gold; To acquire understanding is preferable to silver.” (TNK)

Another problem with pride is it can destroy our relationships. When we don’t allow opposing views even from those we love, the end result is a deep loneliness. No one likes spending time with someone who refuses to listen. If someone at least gives a different view a fair hearing, it doesn’t matter if they don’t change their mind in the end. That they listen is enough, because they approached the discussion with humility.

We are human. That makes us flawed. We’re not right all the time; it’s impossible. A little humility and willingness to learn, to acknowledge our flaws can go a long way in mending relationships instead of destroying them. Humility can also help us find joy instead of unrelenting anger, defensiveness and frustration.

Best of all, we decrease the chance of looking foolish when we’re forced to face the facts.

October Write Fest

Last year a fellow writer decided that writing a 50k novel in November just wasn’t feasible, mostly due to Thanksgiving. We decided that October would work better. Fewer holidays other than Halloween, and one more day than November.

I created a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/groups/118124512172076/) so myself and others can participate, and hold each other accountable. We also don’t hold to the 50k rule like NaNoWriMo, but state our goal at the beginning and hopefully stick to it. I failed last year. I had hoped for 50k, but I barely passed 10k.

This year I hope to hit the 50k, or at the very least finish a dark fantasy I started about eleven years ago. I keep putting off finishing it because it is so dark. The darkest story I’ve yet written.