Category Archives: Reading

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/

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.

Stealing Labor

Someone shared the article below on a Facebook group I follow, and I commented thusly:

“The article was infuriating enough, but some of the comments . . . I would charge any of those people who think an author can’t be harmed by electronic piracy to try writing and publishing a book (some authors can only afford to publish ebooks). Then they will understand just how much it costs, both in time and in money.”

I’m also reminded of when I purchased a student-version of CAD (Computer Aided Drafting) software for $250. When it arrived at the school, at least five people descended upon me asking for a copy.

“Absolutely,” I said. “For $250.” Their expressions were priceless. I then told them, “I didn’t pay $250 just so you could get it for free.” The same thing happened after we built our garage. Several people came to us asking to store their boat, motorcycle, you name it. I said, “Absolutely. For $30,000.”

My parents taught both my sister and me that we should always value the work we do, and to never allow people to expect us to give away our labor for free. In fact, I had to purchase my mom’s prints at full price, but when she needed me to draw a few things for her, she paid me a per/hour rate to do them.

So, yeah, I get a little upset when people expect others to give away their labor at no cost to them. I guarantee if someone told them they needed also to work for free, they, too, would get a bit upset.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/aug/08/elitist-angry-book-pirates-ocean-of-pdf-author-campaign-website

You Don’t Own Them

You Don’t Own Them

I just read a Facebook post by Mike Rowe ( https://www.facebook.com/TheRealMikeRowe/posts/1794612627215539 ).

A thought occurred to me when I read some of the comments:

“Mike, if you really want to stay out of politics, you might reconsider appearing with a squinty-eyed, race-baiting dipshit like Carlson.”

“Mike I respect your support for the trades as I am a high school trades teacher myself. Are you sure Tucker and Fox is the most credible source for you to voice your opinions? Tucker’s track record of his behavior and demeanor towards guests he does not agree with is disgusting. I have lost a little respect for you.”

I responded to the first comment thusly: “So what if he is? He has an audience that Mike wants to reach. I won’t complain if he appeared on a show I dislike, because Mike wants to reach that particular audience as well.

“Because Mike’s overall desire is to reach everyone, regardless of their political leanings.”

I’ve seen similar complaints when Mike appeared on shows considered more left-leaning as well.

He isn’t alone in taking that kind of criticism. Rush Limbaugh was once excoriated in the 1990s for doing an interview for “Playboy” magazine.

I constantly see tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, and articles of people complaining how a reporter, singer, actor, author, athlete, etc. broke some unwritten rule that violated their chosen political worldview.

Since when do we own famous people (or anyone else for that matter)?

It seems like an odd question, but when I read such comments, it has to come from a certain mentality. The only correlation I can think of is that between master and slave.

While people don’t literally own anyone (at least here in the States and other countries), if those posting overly-critical comments didn’t believe they held some kind of “ownership” over that celebrity, why give said celebrity a figurative public beating for breaking their “rules?”

Forlorn

That’s me.

First I saw this on Twitter:

Then I saw this:

I’ve also been watching “Runaways” on Netflix, and in episode 9, the Karolina character out of nowhere expressed her physical attraction to Nico by kissing her. I say out of nowhere because I saw nothing to indicate Karolina was attracted to anyone, let alone Nico.

It’s almost as if the writers sat down after episode seven and decided, “We need gay characters. Who should we pick?”

It seems we can’t watch a single movie or television show that doesn’t at least suggest one or more characters are gay, especially in the speculative genres. Even animated films geared to young children aren’t free of it (such as “How to Train Your Dragon 2”).

As a writer who wants to see my stories in print, I can’t help but wonder if I have wasted decades improving my craft. I don’t avoid writing gay characters; it’s that most of my characters aren’t gay. Nor will I make them gay simply because some want gay characters, even if it makes no sense, and doesn’t move the story forward. It’s an unnecessary distraction.

I’m also tired of agenda and politics-driven storylines, whether they’re pushing homosexuality or so-called climate change. I just want to read and write good stories with interesting characters.

Some might accuse me at this point of being a climate-change-denying homophobe.

To the first. Climate changes. That’s its nature. As for whether or not it’s all caused by Man, sorry. I haven’t seen enough evidence to convince me.

As for the homophobe accusation, the short answer is “no.” Truth is I couldn’t care less a person’s sexual preferences. I’ll say it again: I don’t care. No one will never make me care, and I wish they’d quit throwing it in my face. How do you think they would feel if someone walked up to them and said, “I’m heterosexual. I really like to kiss and have sex with the opposite sex. Now love and accept me, because if you don’t, you must be a heterophobe!”

But I digress. As a writer, what am I to do? Are there still enough people who don’t need or want to read about at least one gay character in every story whether it’s organic to the story or not? Or am I a social dinosaur where everything I write deserves to be tossed on the trash heap of the unenlightened and set on fire? Should I therefore give up, and take nature pictures instead? After all, no one can accuse me of being a name-your-phobia-du-jour for posting pictures of clouds.

A Pixelated View

Have you ever zoomed into a digital photo so close all you see is a bunch of fuzzy, colored squares? If someone were to walk by the computer screen, they’d never guess what the photo actually shows, or that it’s even a photograph.

Only after zooming out does the picture become clear.

I think politics does the same thing, especially if we spend so much time delving into it, and from a single point of view. For instance, I mention President Donald Trump, and some people will react with a visceral loathing while others will want to cheer “MAGA!”

Polar opposite reactions over the same human being.

For the last few months, I’ve grown tired of politics. Anyone with a phone or computer uses their electronic soapbox to opine, and usually with either a progressive or conservative point of view. It’s tiresome and predictable.

As one also armed with multiple electronic devices, I am tempted to follow only those who fall in the same political spectrum as me. After all, why follow those I disagree with when all they do is cause anger and frustration?

Still, I refuse to give in to the temptation, and the answer is simple: I don’t like pixelated photographs. They look choppy, out of focus, little to no contrast to make the subject pop, too few colors, and the details are non-existent. Uninteresting. Boring.

Another word people use to describe looking at things from a single point of view is “myopic.” It means “lacking imagination, foresight, or intellectual insight.” Isn’t that a great word? And so accurate!

Since I never want to be accused of having no intellectual insight, I’ve decided to zoom out, and attempt to see the world as a whole in all its shadows, 16 million-plus colors, contrast, depth and richness.

I resolve to push my political biases behind me, and when I see a post or article I’ll likely disagree with, I still read it, gritted teeth and involuntary shakes of the head notwithstanding.

In doing so, I’ve stumbled on a few gems of wisdom. Did I agree with everything I read? Not at all. Sometimes as a little as ten percent. But still, one piece of new knowledge or wisdom out of ten is one more than I had before.

The impetus of this entry comes from comments made on a political website about commentator, Ben Shapiro. The comments were particularly viscous for the simple reason he was critical of Donald Trump during the primaries — a so-called “Never Trumper.” I often listen to his podcast, and while he’s still critical of Trump, he also gives him credit when it’s due. The funny part is, the commenters refuse to give Shapiro credit when it’s due. Since I know their political leanings, they would find more in common with Shapiro than not. Based on their responses when I tried to defend him, however, they are suffering from their own myopathy. Or to stick with my original analogy, they prefer to stare at pixelated photographs.

It’s a shame, really, because we are so much more than our labels, and opinions. Yet too many of us aren’t willing to step back from staring at a smattering of pixels to get a larger and deeper understanding of the entire photograph.