The Evils of Preaching

So, how much of yourself do you put into stories? I’m not talking about blood, sweat and tears; plenty enough of those go into any fiction story. No, I’m talking about opinions and beliefs…I’m talking about the underlying messages and themes you want to communicate, especially those messages and themes that center on politics and current social issues.

I’ve written before about the futility of those who demand that others “shut up and X.” Whether that variable is sing, play, write, act, paint doesn’t matter. However you fill it in, it still comes down to an admonition that is, in essence, nothing more than a petty, childish demand for everyone on the playground to do what the admonisher wants. The rest of the demand, by implication, is that if others don’t give in to the demands, well…they’ll just take their ball and go home.

Pure, futile stupidity.

No, I will not “shut up and write.” Not anymore than I would expect an actor to play a role without bringing to bear a layer of subtext and meaning that goes beyond the mere words of the script. Nor a painter or sculptor to produce a work without message or substance. If you have something to say, you say it, regardless of occupation or calling. That goes double, by the way, for those creating their own works (whether song or story or painting or any other damned thing).

FA17A784-1CB4-4C5A-8EDF-B6B1AA146E0FBut — of course there’s a BUT — but communicating subtext and meaning can all-too easily become preaching, and that very quickly becomes tiresome. I don’t mind having my assumptions and beliefs challenged by a work, but I do not want to be preached at, no more than I want to be lectured.

So how much is enough? How much is too much?

That’s a hard one, not least because there really is no correct answer. The only rule I can really come up with — at least for myself — is that when your messages and your themes become proselytization, let alone evangelism, it’s time to dial them back…a lot. You have to trust your readers to follow the breadcrumbs of thought and insight you put out there. If you try to force them to follow, you’ve already lost.

EA8533C7-F1EB-495F-B9DD-7998C727A086Now, look, I like putting elements of social commentary and politics into what I write. Certain themes are very much at the center of the sci-fi I envision, to be honest, especially those themes that are focused on the individual, and on all the shit — the exploitation and marginalization — that we as a society allow and condone. But if I start preaching that? If the story becomes more about a message than it is about the characters and the plot?

Yeah, that doesn’t work. At all. (Yes, Ayn Rand, I’m looking at you…)

If I wanted to read a philosophical or political treatise, I would’ve bought one.

I wish I could say there was a magic formula, and an easy answer, but there’s not. Hell, for my own writing, I actually worry about this from both sides: as much as I think about, and try to defend against, being overbearing and preachy, I also worry about being too soft. Hiding too deeply and obscurely what I want to say is, on a personal level, just as bad as getting up on my soapbox.

The simple fact is that I spent a lifetime being quiet, telling others only what they wanted to hear.* I didn’t challenge their assumptions or prejudices, and I certainly didn’t offer any hint or view of something else…of something more. I’m done with that. I have something to say and, goddammit, I’m going to say it.

*As I’ve mentioned before, I am in fact a reformed sales & marketing weasel.

On Beta Readers

Hey, look: a practical writing post! I haven’t done one of these in ages…

Now, I realize I don’t have to describe the concept of a “beta reader” to the other writers out there, but not everyone is insane…err, writing. So, for you sane folks, an explanation: a beta reader is someone who reads and critiques a story during the revision process.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor someone doing long-form writing, that means either handing over a full manuscript, or dribbling the material out chapter-by-chapter. In either case, the critique process is one of the most valuable in the entire editing & revision loop.

It is also by far the hardest to get right.

Finding beta readers is easy. Finding good beta readers?  Finding those who will be honest without worrying about “offending” you, or “hurting your feelings”? That’s hard…really hard.

As hard as it is, however, it is also very necessary. I don’t know about you, but after spending a few months on the writing and initial editing of a 100,000-125,000 word manuscript, I am too close to the material to be truly objective. Hell, I would argue that after those first couple of editing passes, most writers — hopefully it’s not just me! — are pretty much inured to the remaining problems in a story. Whether a “missing” scene, or excess words & thoughts that break the pacing, or something else, it’s all too easy to become blind to a story’s faults.

Oh, sure, we writers could step away from a semi-finished story for months — or a year, even — to let the “distance” grow, but that solution is as silly as it is impractical. Finding the faults, when you get right down to it, takes outside eyes.

For most of us, that means turning to friends and family first. “Hey, Bob reads a lot…I’ll have him give it a read!”

Ahem.

I don’t know about you, but the family & friends solution has never been terribly successful for me. When I give something to a reader, I don’t want “feedback”, I want full-on criticism. I need to know the flaws and problems, I need honesty. I live for the day I hear someone say, “This chapter is freaking broken” or “This character is just obnoxious.” God knows, it’s probably a bit too much to hope to hear, “This scene drags, it would be better without it.”

There are writing groups out there, both in person and online, that can help serve this function. Sometimes, they serve very, very well. But other times? Other times, they can have enough negativity, bitterness and internecine squabbling to make you long for your kindergarten days.

So what’s a cranky, needy writer to do? Well, based on my latest experience, the answer is simple: hire someone.

There are other writers out there — better, there are editors out there — who will take on the task of critiquing your story for a modest fee. I’m not talking about copy editing here, I’m not talking about picking apart the grammar and punctuation and spelling…although, Lord knows, many of us could use that service, too. No, I’m talking about story critiques. I’m talking about finding those flaws and needs.

And, yes, I am “preaching” about this because I recently used this very type of service. I had a story that was mostly done (story-wise, not detailed editing-wise), but there were still flaws. I knew there were flaws, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on them; I was too close to the material. I needed help, so I hired it.* It was, in all honesty, the best thing I could have done for that story.

31f8a29bee94d347ef6d39f3090601bfIf you already have good, honest beta readers…congratulations! I’m jealous. If, like me, you struggle to find them, I would strongly suggest that you do not simply rely on yourself. Trust me on this: that way madness lies. Nope, go out and hire those outside eyes.

*If you’re curious, I used someone I found through IWSG…and I endorse the heck out of her. Thank you, Chrys Fey!

Bloggin’ About Not-Bloggin’

C7BEDFC4-2A44-4AB5-B615-27A84C9D92C8Okay, so I cheated on Monday. I mean really, really cheated.  I didn’t just glance at my neighbor’s paper to copy some answers, I did the full-on steal-the-test, copy-every-answer kind of cheat.

It pretty much sucked. I felt guilty as hell.

I know, I’m most certainly not the first blogger to just recycle an old post, but I didn’t even do a good job of it.

*sigh*

Often, I will keep a few of these posts queued up and waiting so I don’t have to scramble to write one at the last minute (like I am now). That means, of course, that I also tend to use that “backlog” of posts as an excuse to, err, get stinking lazy. It’s not all that hard to convince myself that, since I have a bunch of posts ready, I don’t need to work on the blog today.

You know, it’s kind of making me flash back to college, flash back to a professor trying to explain to a bunch of freshmen that scrambling to recover from NOT doing the work is just going to take longer than actually DOING the work. I spent more time thinking about the post I needed/wanted to write today — the post about NOT writing a post on Monday — than I would have if I just written a 300-word humor piece on beer-can art on Monday.

The good news — not excuse, or even reason, just good news — is that I am, finally, back to doing fairly serious fiction writing & work. That doesn’t really help, however…at least not to me. It may sound weird, but this blog is an outlet, and a type of writing, I don’t have in fiction writing. It’s an outlet, I should add, that I have found very valuable over the two years I’ve been writing Seat at the Bar.

I started this place as a way to work on short-form writing, as a way to try to condense my normal wordiness into something (hopefully) more efficient and effective. It was also a venue to share aspects of my writing, both in terms of the process and the real-world experiences.

The blog became more than that, however. It became a place to share bits and pieces of myself, bits and pieces I never did — never could — share anywhere other than through the written word. I told you folks things I never told even my family: from my battles with depression to my shameful love of Downton Abbey to the suicides and tragedies that have defined my world. There has been as much personal honesty here as random squirreling, ranting and drunk-bloggin’.

Writing is a hell of journey. If you get it right — if you have the talent and the drive and, yes, the luck — it can be a journey both wonderful and rewarding. It also can be the most frustrating, difficult, disappointing and exasperating journey imaginable. To share that journey with you — even if such sharing does mean the occasional foray away from writing and into music or beer or the wonders of Young Frankenstein — is something I have, much to my surprise, come to look forward to three times a week…look forward to far too much to cheat myself, to cheat this blog, and to cheat you.

Just Words On A Page

I had another post written for today, a post that was a perfect example of how I write…a very, very negative example.

There really is a reason why I write these posts in one sitting. Just as there really is a reason why I don’t bother to plan them out, and why I let them grow & evolve as “organic” things.

That “perfect post” I have still-sitting in my Drafts folder is — not to put too fine a point on it — crap.

I didn’t have anything I particularly wanted to write about when I sat down that day, so I pushed and pulled and tortured my brain to come up with something. And, well, come up with something I did.

Unfortunately, what I came up with was something for which I had no passion, and in which I consequently had no real confidence or belief. I certainly had no emotional investment. As I’ve mentioned before: if I (or any of us!) put out something that isn’t interesting to write, why the hell would anyone ever want to read it?

Which brings me back to how I write. Now, look, I know there are other, less internal, dynamics and ways of operating in the writing world, but they are as alien and strange and incomprehensible to me as my friend’s job designing computer chips…

The simple fact of the matter is that I have to give a damn about what I write. There has to be a level of feeling and investment in order for me to believe in it…and for me to trust myself, and (more importantly) to trust the words. Otherwise, why the hell would I, or anyone else, give a damn?

In the end, the reality for me is that writing is passion. Writing is emotion and connection and honesty. As writers, we want and need to elicit those things from our readers.  We want and need our readers to connect with our story, to feel the emotions and struggles of our characters. Well, if we want them to invest themselves in the story, we better damned well invest ourselves in what we imagine and create.

And, yes, if you’re wondering, I did just happen to finish a book that failed to do any of the above. Reading the thing was a serious chore…a chore and a waste of time that I regret. By the time I was a third of the way through that story, it had become impossible to ignore the fact that the author just didn’t give two shits about his characters, and cared only the littlest bit more about the story itself.

The saddest part of that, for me, is that the writer in question happens to be a “name” who can and will sell books solely on the basis of reputation and previous works. I hate the very concept — and sad reality — of that. I hate the fact that, for some writers, a story doesn’t have to matter, it just has to exist…hate the fact that a story can be just words on a page.

Just words on a page.

Shit…why would you ever bother?