Category Archives: Writing

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/

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.

Thirteen Years Later

The other day I wanted to post something on a Facebook group called Realm Makers Consortium. I didn’t know what exactly, except that it be humorous. After staring at that evil cursor for about two minutes, this popped into my head:

“I asked God to teach me patience, so he made me a writer.”

Writing, like any other skill, takes a lot of work. Years of work and study. Learning the rules, knowing when to break them, reading a lot of books both in and out of our chosen genre to discover what works and what doesn’t. Why certain tropes and writing structures work for some genres and not for others. Writing hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of words to discover our own unique voice.

Deciding what to publish, when, to whom, to go indie, vanity or traditional. To spend countless hours searching for editors, cover artists for indie publishing, agents and traditional publishers. To wait weeks if not months for that almost inevitable rejection letter, yet still hopeful for an acceptance. Trying to convince ourselves that another rejection won’t hurt as much as the last one, and to not want to scream into a pillow and vow we will never write another word when it does come.

A few days ago, I went back through my original blog about my journey to get published, and I tried not to cringe at the date of my first entry: September 16, 2005.

Have I really been at it this long? Should I be embarrassed that after so much time I have so little to show for it?

Or should I be grateful?

Because I trust God and his plan for me, I’m going for grateful. I haven’t sat idle while I wait. I’ve spent that time writing, reading, studying and honing my craft. When I look back at what I wrote thirteen years ago, I have improved. Much of it was unpublishable, but I couldn’t see it at the time. God did, however, and that’s another reason I am grateful.

Heart Treasures

Heart Treasures

“But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” ~ Luke 2:19

I tried writing down everything that happened at the writers conference last month. The good, the bad, the exciting and the boring. I wrote about the first two days, but stopped half-way through the third.

I couldn’t go any further. Like Mary, I needed to treasure it as well as ponder.

During the conference, I signed up for a fifteen minute appointment with a literary agent. I practiced my pitch in one of my elective courses just prior to my appointment, and I continued to mentally recite it as I walked through the hotel.

The moment I sat down with the agent, I started my pitch. I didn’t get but a few words in when he said, “Show me what you have.”

Okay. Fine by me, because I was stumbling over it, anyway. I gave him my “one sheet” which contains a back-cover blurb, the genre, word count, and my bio which includes my writing credits.

He read the first page of my fantasy (and latest novel), stopped less than a page in and said, “I have a question for you. Why aren’t you published, yet? This is really good.”

“Honestly,” I said, “I haven’t tried that hard. I’ve been concentrating on writing and improving my craft.”

He nodded and continued to read. He spent over half of appointment reading it. I spent that time staring at his two massive football rings, and ached to ask him who he played for, and if they were Super Bowl or division championship rings.

He finally had to force himself to put it down, and asked if I had anything else.

“I do.”

“Did you bring them?”

I did, and took them out of my folder. His expression indicated that he was pleased that I did. I pulled out the first chapter of one and said, “This one is a lot shorter, so it won’t take you as long.”

He skimmed through that one and asked more about the books’ genres, what genre I preferred to write and if the books were YA or adult.

In the end, he not only asked me to send him the full manuscript and synopsis of my fantasy, but the other two as well. He even bragged me up a bit to an editor for Tor sitting next to him, and recommended I sign up to meet with her as well. She was full up, however, and I never got a chance to accost her during meals or elsewhere.

I sent him everything about two weeks ago. I expect to get a response in the next six weeks or so. Hopefully.

I don’t expect him to take me as a client, though (or at least tell myself not to). My books have received interest like this before, and ended up being passed over.

Even so, that the agent literally couldn’t put my story down says — and means — a lot. It also shows that all my hard work has yielded good results after all.

Offending Jesus

I wrote six devotionals for my church dedicated to the minor prophets such as Hosea, Amos and Obadiah.

They were a bit difficult, because most prophets describe where the people (in this case the Israelites) are convicted of their wrong-doing. As such my devotionals are more convicting than usual.

Last Sunday I helped teach the kindergartners for Sunday school. A lady approached me and said, “I’ve really enjoyed your writing this month.” I had to think about it for a second. I thought, “You read my blog?” I don’t remember even inviting her to my author page on Facebook, so how did she find it. And then I remembered. She meant my devotionals.

“They’re convicting,” she said, “but in a very good way.”

“Oh, good,” I said. “I knew how convicting they were, and was a little fearful they would be offensive.”

“Sometimes that’s what we need.”

“That’s true,” I said. “Jesus himself was very offensive, and is part of why he was killed.”

“That should be the title of your next book,” someone else said. “The Offensive Jesus.”

An interesting idea, but I don’t know if I could write an entire book on the subject. My first thought is that it would contain little else but existing scriptural passages where Jesus offended people (usually the Israeli leadership such as the Pharisees). Still, as with all ideas, it’s worth thinking about.

To add a little brainstorming: I would have to start with why the Pharisees found Jesus so offensive, and perhaps seek to answer why so many today still do.

In Tears

Maybe because I had a difficult week dealing with a bad tooth, and now with it fixed, I have succumbed to exhaustion. As such, I’m feeling a bit more emotional than usual (or maybe it’s a hormonal thing).

Regardless, I just finished writing another devotional for my church, and more than once I had to fight back tears. Something about it struck me. It’s about God’s love and mercy, that no matter how egregious our sins, he will always pursue us to get us to accept his convictions, his mercy, and his love.

Perhaps there are a few sins of my own that I need to lay at God’s feet. Perhaps, although my head is well aware of who God is, and how much he loves me, my heart needs a bit more coaxing. I don’t always feel God’s presence even when I know he’s there.

Such as when my husband is sitting next to me. I know he’s there, loving me, however quietly. Yet sometimes I need him to hold my hand, so I can feel his love just as poignantly.