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.

Micro vs. Macro; or, It’s Not The Size Of The Lens, It’s What You Do With It

I’m thinkin’ about themes, and the subtextual messages we (well, most of us) try to communicate in our writing.

Well…more precisely, I’m working on the underlying themes for a new & totally unrelated project, and that got me to thinking…

Now, starting to conceive and develop a new project (however slowly) when you’re only halfway through your current one may not be the smartest thing in the world…but no one ever accused me of being smart. Honestly, at this point the important part is that the new project gives me different dynamics and pacing to use.  It also, it must be said, gives me the opportunity to play with some themes & ideas that have no place in Connor & Oz’s universe.

But…the question that kept coming up in the back of my mind as I worked was this: just how do you know when you reached that saturation point?  How do you know when enough is enough?

Okay, okay…so, even I know the answer to that one (with thanks to Julia Child for this): “when it is done.”

Part of the answer, I think, is just what are those themes you are trying to communicate. There is a certain amount of room & latitude for the small lens — for the personal — but far more for thoughts and insights through a bigger lens.

Literature in general, and science fiction in particular, have always been around to communicate far more than they say. Hell, for at least a century, sci-fi has been the go-to resource for social and political commentary on the problems and events of, err, “today”.

Don’t believe me? Read Brave New World, or The Forever War, or War With The Newts…hell, go back to Wells’s Eloi and Morlochs. Nope, no message there, no light shining on his contemporary society…


Sorry, about that — almost got started on a rant…and a reading list that might never have ended.

If anything, I would argue that today’s sci-fi and fantasy don’t have enough to say about the “big things”. Oh, there are all kinds of stories in the small-scale, but the number of books that criticize and argue — err, effectively criticize and argue — about the biggest things just isn’t anywhere near as large as it could be.

And…well…I’m part of the problem. My current project (Connor & Oz) is very much at the micro end of the scale. It is focused on the personal problems — and growth — of a troubled kid who is very much at the wrong end of that old truism that “shit rolls downhill”.

Thinking about that, and about Connor’s story as it evolves and grows, has me looking — looking very hard — at those bigger elements and threads that I’ve included in the world-building, but haven’t actually developed.  It’s got me thinking, at least a little bit, at the macro end of the scale.

I can’t complain about folks not tackling the “big picture” stuff if I won’t do it, can I?


There are problems and challenges in the world today that just aren’t going away anytime soon — and certainly aren’t going away in the timeframe in which these stories take place (300-350ish years in the future). The trick and the challenge is to keep the focus tight and personal on my protagonist, but to use the end results and impacts of these issues on Connor to (hopefully) shine a light.

Oh, and before you ask: nope, the changes ain’t gonna make the tone any lighter. Repression & control, exploitation, elitism, the ever-present power of corruption and vice, and the willing heartlessness of “the many” that allows all that to prosper and grow…

Nope, not gonna get any lighter…but it will be fun*.

*And a hell of a lot of work.

I should probably add that Connor’s story was originally designed and intended to be purely personal, to be the reality of two kids who never had a chance. It is only lately that I’ve begun to think that, perhaps, looking at the universe through that small lens might not be enough…