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The Idea You Must Write – A Blast From the Past 2017-05-16

With the recent stopping of book publications for writing something the author shouldn’t write, I think it is important to remember we should write challenging and, yes, dangerous stories.

One other quick note. Tomorrow is April 5 and my monthly newsletter, with cat pictures and new fiction, comes out. You can sign up at the bottom of this post or via the newsletter form to the left.


“Write what frightens you” is the advice J. Daniel Sawyer gave early on in The Everyday Novelist podcast when asked about what to write after finishing a NaNoWriMo. He admits the advice is not original to him and gives Stephen King credit for the idea. While we can argue about Stephen King being a source for good artistic guidance it is hard to claim he isn’t a model for commercial success.

While listening to season 10 of Writing Excuses I heard a missed opportunity on that front. In the fourth episode of the season, Ideas Q&A(transcript), a workshop participant asked when you knew it was time to abandon an idea. Mary Robinette offered as a reason:

You can also look at something and if you realize that it’s going to cause you to write a book that is problematic or a story that is problematic because you are inadvertently reinforcing a negative paradigm about racism or sexism or something.

She goes on to say:

I had a… I actually have a story idea that I would…I love it, and I will never, ever write it…I would have been have writing a sexist story that…It was just like incredibly misogynistic.

I am going to disagree with her in the general case and, something I am generally loathe to do, in her specific choice. In fact, I am going to claim that Mary passed up a chance to write something profound and that her refusal is an example of one reason why we have a rift in the science-fiction and fantasy community.

Being racist, sexist, homophobic, and so on it a strong fear in the modern west. This has been used in politics because the accusation of such taps into the fear and often generates the action the accuser desires. More than one author has argued the Trump vote is an over usage of this fear.

That is why when you are afraid that you are going to write a story which turns on one of these features you should engage that story. I find when writers engage something uncomfortable to them is when they engage the story the most. They fight hard to make what is uncomfortable not the solution or to understand the forces behind it being the conclusion so well they draw tight constraints around it. The author will often gain, and then show, insight into why people hold those ideas.

All of these are elements of great story. I have been pretty clear when it comes to writing first and foremost to me are great stories.

They are also the traits of great literature. The ability to transport us into a time, place, or even mind set alien to us is something great literature does. While this is often discussed in terms of exposing the universal nature of the human condition it can also teach us what is unique. It can do this about people we like. It can do the same for people about whom we are indifferent.

It can do this about people we hate and perceive as enemies. If you are opposed to racism, sexism, or for that matter atheism and gay marriage (because a writer who find those things negative would, by Mary’s advice avoid writing about atheism and gay marriage, and thus gaining insight into those advocating for such ideas) it is wise to remember the wisdom of Sun Tzu:

So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles.

I have no doubt Mary can write fiction that tears down misogynist thoughts and stereotypes. I suspect, admittedly due mostly to lack of evidence otherwise but also some of the statements on the podcast, that Mary sits comfortably in the default progressive culture which covers much of the West in general and nearly all of the creative arts fields. She will carry many assumptions about the evils racism, sexism, etc. embody and create.

The problem is that would not be writing what she fears. Too often (and this is a general comment and not tied to any of her stories) writing what you love in terms of ideology turns out not great literature but message fiction. The failure to engage in something you find negative as something as real and as human is to risk writing yet another very special episode of *Blossom*. The work will embody those assumptions in a character or situation will not challenge her nor the reader. Often, if the assumptions are just that the character or situation will appear as caricature and those who disagree will laugh at the cardboard villain instead of being moved to reflection.

The film Dead Man Walking is a masterclass in engaging what you disagree with. It is a powerful anti-death penalty field that gives in full and cogent form the case for capital punishment. It white washes no one. Yet it has a consistent and powerful this is wrong message. It would lack that power had the screenwriters and director not engaged, and risked reinforcing, the core ideas they were fighting.

For a specific example that ties to Mary’s specific concern, it is the problem that plagues literature advertised as diverse in that it emphasizes the good thing without examining it and the result is at best bland and often preachy. Fights over what diversity means and requires in fiction is one of the issues in the broader fight engendered by the Sad Puppies campaigns. In full fairness in the very next episode the *Writing Excuses* crew does point out diversity for diversity’s sake is not a good thing.

The point of diversity is to bring a different viewpoint to a problem.

When you refuse to write something because the character or the outcome is from a viewpoint you fear you are cutting off an entire sphere of solutions. That leads to giving up on great stories.

It also cedes the field. People who believe, for example, homosexuals are abhorrent get to define what that belief looks in one of the most powerful mediums, stories. People who wish to define Black Lives Matters backers as thugs are given the field on how to interpret certain statements made by speakers at their rallies if authors refuse to engage the idea that some of their allies are speaking from race based hatred because the authors are afraid of reinforcing a stereotype.

So, engage that which you fear even if it means a hero or a solution that you find abhorrent will be at the center of your story. I suspect along the writing way it won’t reinforce to the degree you fear. I also suspect along the way you will gain an insight you can use to fight the idea in everyday life.

Good story, wisdom, and a new tactic all from one journey? Sounds like a bargain to me.


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2 Comments

  1. […] would be remiss if I did not mention rules three and four also reminded me of ”The Idea You Must Write”. Had I dropped the slavery aspect I would not have challenged myself to find better world building. […]

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