Wednesday, February 12, 2014

A Writer’s Responsibility

by Stephanie Osborn

There’s been a lot of talk in the science fiction community as a whole about...stuff. About what should go into our writing: morals, “agendas,” ethics, world views, theology, prejudice, all kinds of stuff like that. The gist of the argument is about whether or not we as writers are responsible for...teaching, I suppose...our readers. There have been very...forceful...words...said by a lot of people, some of which I agree with, and some of which I don’t. Some of it has been civil, and some of it hasn’t.

What I want to do in this blog entry is to put in my $0.02 worth on what I think we, as writers, should be writing, fully recognizing that that, and about five bucks, might get you a cuppa Starbux. I also want to do it in a civil, peaceful fashion, with no insult or denigration intended to anybody. I recognize that that’s very hard to do, and I also recognize that there are those who will accuse me of being milquetoast or too cowardly to take a stand. But I am the sort that prefers just to get along with folks, and I find I simply don’t enjoy argument for the sake of argument. If anyone takes offense at what I’m about to say, it is purely accidental. It’s also based on a post I made on the subject in a LinkedIn group conversation, so those of you who are in that group will have already read some of what I’m about to say.


Basically and very simply, I write stories I would enjoy reading myself. If it’s not something I would want to read, chances are that I won’t maintain sufficient interest and drive to finish it, anyway. It is also a true statement that there have been times when I wanted to read a certain thing in a certain sub-genre, and upon finding that it didn’t exist (or was so hard to find that it might as well have not existed), I sat down and wrote it myself.

And I try to stay true to myself in the doing, which means, while I want it to sell well, I'm not willing to throw out my personal morality, nor to hop on the latest bandwagon for the sake of hopping on. (For example, I refuse to write about a sparkly werewolf/vampire hybrid Elf Victorian angsty gay warlock with a disability.) [insert laugh here]  In other words, don't expect me to go along with the latest fad. In turn, that means that my personal morals and beliefs tend to slip in (which I think is probably true of 99.99% of writers, unless they are trying hard and actively to prevent it -- which I do try to do, sometimes, when it’s appropriate). It’s also true that the subconscious things to which we each tend to default will creep in, as well. And as far as I'm concerned, in general, that's okay. 

That doesn't mean I don't try to do things that shake people up, things that make readers think. I try hard to do that. (Heck, in my first novel I destroyed a frakkin' Space Shuttle, for pity's sake.) Sometimes that means having a plot twist that makes ME uncomfortable, but which makes sense in context, and if it does, I do it -- because what's most important to me about the characters I write is making them come alive to the reader -- so no cookie-cutter characters/beliefs/personalities/morals. 

In fact, one of the two most important aspects of writing is, in my opinion, the ability to create a character that comes alive for the reader (and usually for me, too). I have had male fans meeting me for the first time find themselves mildly surprised to be meeting a woman -- because, they said, the male characters I write are so spot-on to how men think that they thought a guy surely must have written it. And I have had other fans contact me to find out how a particular character was reacting to a big news event that happened near where the character “lives.” (I use that choice of wording deliberately.)

I delight in these things, these responses. It means I have done what I set out to do: I have created a PERSON. I have created someone who lives in your mind so strongly that it is entirely possible to forget that s/he is NOT real. Because it is the characters who make you care about them, who make you want to know what happens to them.

The other most-important aspect is, of course, the story itself. This is, simply put, the tale of what happens to those characters that I’ve just made you care about. Because even if a real person has the potential, if his/her life is boring, you never hear about ‘em on the evening news.

What's that old saying? "Well-behaved women rarely make history." I'd paraphrase that to read, "People who don't take chances rarely make history."

If the character is what makes you care, their stories are what get your attention. Combined, the two are what keep you reading.

And I'm not really observant of genre boundaries: I tend to cross over, a lot, and by design. I mostly write science fiction mysteries with elements of romance, suspense, and thriller. Consequently I'm a member of several different writers' groups, and the bane of my publisher when she tries to figure out what TWO categories in which to enter my latest book on Amazon. (Yes, you read that right: Amazon only allows two categories for any given book.) And it's why my fans in a podcast chat, and the host of the podcast, together devised the title, "The Interstellar Woman of Mystery," for me. (I thought it was hilariously good fun, and very apt when you got down to it, so I had my publicist incorporate that title in my bio, and put it in the title of my website, on my email sig file, etc. Yes, I have a d@#^ inconvenient, and very warped, sense of humor at times.) 

And I'm doing well for myself with this approach. I'm not a NYT best-seller...yet. But I do have a couple of ebook best-sellers to my credit, and a burgeoning fandom. 

And frankly, trying to layer a given belief, morality or "lecture" (because that's really what it is) on top of the story tends to backfire in general, because it usually ends up too heavy-handed, and the reader feels like they're being beat about the head and shoulders with it. Ultimately, we writers are the intellectual descendants of the storytellers of old, the bards, the shamans sitting around a fire. Can there be a moral to the story? Sure. “Aesop” did that, a loooong time ago. But the moral always comes AFTER. The STORY-- and the character -- comes first.

Hope all that makes sense.

-Stephanie Osborn