May 10, 2008

The Pen May be Mightier than the Sword, but It’s Not a Howitzer.

I’m beginning to understand why Anne McCaffrey took to only mentioning her horses and leaving out her successful career as a novelist whenever a stranger would ask her what she does for a living.

When someone finds out I write fiction, one or two things invariably happen. First, they look at me and, not all but most, assume since I’m a woman and mother I must either write romance novels or children’s books. I’ll admit to adding a bit of romance now and again if the story calls for it, but I’ve never written a story centering on a love affair. I have no plans to in the future either. It’s just not me, and although I am enamored of my girls and very fond of children in general, that’s not me either. I’ve tried writing for children and teens, and it just doesn’t work. I can teach young children sure, but teaching them and writing for them are two completely different things.

This is something it seems very few people understand, because the second thing that happens is the person launches into their idea for a book. Nine times out of ten, the ideas for children’s books aren’t story ideas at all but a lesson the person feels children need to be taught. It happens less often when the book idea is meant for an audience above the age of fifteen, but there still seems to be this impulse to push one’s ideas through like mixing medicine with ice cream.

First off, hiding medicine in ice cream doesn’t work if you use one part ice cream to five parts medicine. If the whole story centers on the lesson, the fact you’re trying to cram your ideals down the reader’s throat is painfully obvious. It can be insulting to any age group, and your reader is likely to either push the bowl away entirely or choke on the contents.

Secondly, literature, no matter the audience, is art and therefore open to interpretation. The lesson you so ardently try to teach may not be received full and whole. Your reader may overlook your pet lesson and take something completely different away from the story, and that’s okay. Isn’t one of the most beautiful things about art the fact it can speak to us one way today and another a year from now?

To the writers out there and those of you thinking about learning the craft, don’t waste time focusing a lesson just to forget the story. Develop the story. Make it have meaning to you. The rest will take care of its own.

Stories may make for good lessons, but lessons don’t make good stories.


  1. Since I make the crust as a computer guy, I'm left with few options. If I say I'm a writer, people get sort of wonky. If I tell them I'm a computer guy, they start asking me to fix their PC or tell me about problems they have with spreadsheets at work.

    I like your point about how readers pick and choose their own meaning. It's sort of like the labels we wear when we meet people. People draw their own conclusions. I try to live for myself.

    Now I just tell people I'm a hit man or a gardener. Far more interesting conversations result.

  2. Ouch, you really don't have a lot of options do you. A good friend of ours is an IT professional, so we've seen how folks immediately see him as a walking help desk. My condolences. ;)

    Now I just tell people I'm a hit man or a gardener. Far more interesting conversations result.

    And I'd like to thank you for starting my morning off with a mad case of the giggles. I think you and Hubby may share a similar sense of humor. Yes, it does generate far more interesting conversations.

  3. I just came to this conclusion recently. I now have a whole new understanding of how doctors must feel in social situations - no wonder they avoid them! I am now going to say I am a marketer. Your point is right on about the balance we must strike. I love that everyone can read something I wrote and interpret it differently. It is the beauty of those varying perspectives viewed through the lens of unique life experiences that truly makes art interesting.

  4. Nicely said in both areas... I have to admit that the whole story-as-lesson idea isn't at the forefront of my mind when writing.

    Maybe I should be a bit more aware of that aspect...but darn it now that you mentioned it, it likely will be too much present -like telling someone not to picture a pink elephant with purple spots playing a tuba while perched at the top of a palm tree.
    (did you?)
    People do have mental labels that quickly pop into place as soon as certain occupations/lifestyles are mentioned. (Once they figure out what that is)

    I am asked "What do you do"
    -I manage a community development group that specializes in IT development.
    "yeah. but what do you do?"
    -Think stuff up, and try and get it done.
    "really, what do you do?"
    -Manage the CAP Site.
    "Cool, what exactly do you do?"
    -Fix computers. (sigh)
    "Oh great, mine is slow for some reason, can you...."

    Maybe next time I will say I am a hitman who specializes in pro-bono jobs on people looking for free computer service. @isle

  5. It's interesting that they assume that you write romance or children's novels (nothing wrong with those, of course).

    As a technical writer, now freelance writer, when I say that I'm a writer most people assume that I must be writing a novel.

  6. @ Words for Hire The fact anything I wrote could be interpreted differently than the way I meant it used to bother me when I first considered trying to publish toward the end of my high school career. It wasn't until I began seeing the different interpretations of literature you get in college courses and the discussions raised by them I realized exactly why literature, art, and music are so important.

    @Islander I'm sorry if I pulled something to the forefront of your mind that won't go away, and yes, I pictured the pink elephant with purple spots playing a tuba while perched at the top of a palm tree.

    @ Laura Spenser No, nothing wrong with writing romance or children's literature, it's just not something I can pull off without creating something laughable. Like Islander said, people generally have their preconceived notions of any occupation like all writers are aspiring novelists or everyone in direct sales pushes either make up, doodads, or cooking utensils.

  7. Ha! When I tell people I'm a singer, at least half the time they immediately ask me to sing something for them. Because I'm actually a bit on the shy side when I'm off-stage, I often find this an awkward and embarrassing request. Besides, usually it's on a day when I'm dog tired or have a cold, so I tell them I'm off-duty. However, lately I've been making an effort to try to share my talent for a minute, if it's appropriate. It's free, it's portable, it's impressive and sometimes thrilling, so why not? Now have a little repertory of songs I can sing on the spur of the moment, with no accompaniment. Then I ask them for their e-mail address and a promise to come to my next performance. Does that make me an arts promoter, too?

    I have added your blog to my Bookmarks...

  8. I'd say you're an independent marketing specialist, La Deedah. That's a neat idea.

    Thank you for the bookmark.