>> Monday, October 11, 2010
I read Query Shark quite frequently. I've found it invaluable, not only to see what mistakes others are making, but honing my critical skill so I can write my own queries better. I may have mentioned that marketing isn't my strong suit.
Frequently, I often stumble across interesting discussions, not only on what books are effective or interesting or marketable (though that too), but what's appropriate for young adults or what ideas seem, um, twisted. And, every once in a while, there will be a discussion that intrigues me, like the one attached to query #183. There's some technical stuff, and some detailed stuff, some continuity headaches, etc. But what intrigued me is the notion that deeper meanings are taboo. The moderator, Query Shark, said:
Others agreed (as I did to a point) and one quoted Samuel Goldwyn (of MGM), "If you've got a message, send a telegram." Now, let's be clear. I agree that the heavy-handed message intended in this query seems clumsy. I agree that people with an axe to grind frequently fill novels and stories (and movies and whatnot) with tons of useless, painful, contrived garbage that turn what might have been a story into an dull flavorless experiences or a mindless miasma of illogical contortions that only appeals to like-minded sanctimonious "intellectuals." Think Oscar winner.
I'm also EXTREMELY wary of authors who are trying to make a point or teach a lesson, or illuminate a problem in novels. Story comes first and authors who want to make a point rarely are willing to let the story dominate the points they want to make. Stories with lessons are called parables, not novels.
Most people don't pick up a novel to get a sermon. Or, if they do, they're reading different books than I'm reading.
For example, Victor Hugo's great novel (one of 'em anyway), Les Misérables, was interspersed with long tracts on French post-Revolutionary politics and history. Fortunately, he set them apart from the novel and, by just skipping those sections, the novel itself makes a fine read. What's more, every point he's trying to make in those sections (at least in my opinion) is just as clearly elucidated in the story proper - and more effectively.
Why do I say that?
Because it wasn't a dry lesson when it involved Cosette, Valjean and even Javert. Each of the characters grew, living in that history Hugo was trying to portray, changed by it, growing through the hardships and even the successes, learning something. It didn't feel like a sermon, though the lessons were there. It felt like a story and I could appreciate the hardship because I read along with the people, lived alongside them for a while. The problems, issues and history were humanized by making it into an accessible story. That's why it was great.
Make it clunky, subvert the characters or story to press your point, and it because unreal and contrived, undermining the lesson's credibility, precluding it from touching the reader. But make the characters alive, the story all too plausible, believable, real, as say Charles Dickens did, and you send a message that continues to echo generations later. You want to talk about power.
Stories, particularly character stories as I favor, are about growth. Lessons come naturally, fall into place without any browbeating or monologues. Each writer helps shape each character into what they want them to become, provides the world, which can be harsher than today or more enlightened, and uses that circumstance to highlight all kinds of thoughts pertinent to people in today's environment. No matter how far-fetched the notions, it can be accessible, characters can suck people in and make them identify with different viewpoints, aspects, prejudices, cultures. If we, as writers, can't get readers to identify with our characters, the stories wouldn't work anyway.
But it should be natural, unforced, a quiet side effect of telling a compelling story about interesting characters. Even fluff fiction has aspects of this, depending on what direction you want your characters to grow. One reason I read only a couple of romance authors is because I hate the ever prevalent rapist-as-the-hero trend. Harmless tripe, one might say. Well, I think anything you read has the potential to influence you, make you think the world is as it's shown. And, in my view, that's not harmless.
I read and write characters living the way I'd like to think I'd live if I were in that situation. Honest, caring, generous, forgiving, tolerant. Funny. Imperfect. When I write characters with those characteristics I admire, I'm instilling a deeper meaning, even in my least serious work.
I don't think any novel serves a higher purpose by battering the reader with obvious homilies and preaching. A good book, should, at most, makes it an "a-ha" moment as a reader thinks, "I never thought about it that way." Preferably after the fact. And, at best, the reader looks out at the world differently than they did before without even necessarily knowing why.
At least, that's what I think.