Monday, November 20, 2017

What To Do When You're Afraid Your Book Is Preachy



Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.


We had a question from a writer about how to keep from "preaching" in your fiction. They specifically asked about it in the context of Christianity, but since preachy fiction isn't limited by religious fiction, I'm going to broaden the scope of my answer.



We all have a specific way that we view the world. The right way, of course. (Wink, wink.) We also all have passions, some that are positive in nature and others that are sad or hard. You might feel deeply passionate about writing stories that leave people feeling hopeful about the world. Or you might feel passionate about people understanding the pain caused by racism. (Though obviously these two examples could coexist.)

Passion is a good thing, and we're rightly advised to create out of it. If you're not passionate about your topic, you can't expect anybody else to care, right?

But what about when your critique group says that you're "preaching" or that you've gotten on a soapbox? Should you cool down your passions? What about books like Jodi Picoult's (The Pact, My Sister's Keeper) that are focused on issues like suicide, a broken legal system, stem cell treatments, and so on?

We know novels that revolve around religious or social issues can sell, so the question becomes:

How do you put your passions on the page without readers feeling like you're preaching to them?

Remember story is king.

Sometimes we build stories based on a subject we're passionate about. I did that with my WWII novel that comes out with Blink/HarperCollins in 2019. I grew passionate about the Japanese American experience in the United States during the war, and I wanted to explore it more, so I crafted a story idea.

But very few people will pick up that novel thinking, "I'm going to buy this in hopes that I learn more about the Japanese American concentration camps." That's not why we buy novels. We buy them to be entertained. 

As someone who adores historical fiction, one of my favorite qualities of the genre is learning about another place and time in history, but if I was truly wanting to be educated about a topic, I would head to the non-fiction section at Barnes and Noble.

I have learned lots and lots of fascinating things about the Japanese Americans in WWII, but only a fraction of it gets to go in the story. The rest are darlings that need to be killed, or kept out of the story from the beginning.

You have to be strict with yourself on this one. If it doesn't serve the story, it's got to go.

Show other viewpoints with equal strength and respect.


If you hang around the writing world very long, you'll hear characters referred to as straw men. This refers to characters who are clearly there just to give the main character someone to beat, and they're beaten easily. A friend of mine, novelist and writing teacher Daniel Schwabauer, said in a class, "It doesn't take much effort to knock down a straw man."

If you want to avoid being preachy or heavy-handed, it's vital that you create strong, respectable characters who believe the opposite as your character. These characters should have clear, understandable reasons for believing what they do. It's much more impressive if your character triumphs over another character who's strong, right?

I think the first step to achieving this happens off the page. You have people in your life who believe something different than you or who don't get fired up about this hot-button issue of yours. Take the time to think it through from their perspective and to be respectful of them. I'm not talking about watering down the truth of what you want to share, but rather how to be honest while showing honor to other view points or beliefs.

Remember to raise questions.

One of the biggest reasons that preachy fiction is annoying is that it's all about telling me what I should and shouldn't believe. That's not what we pick up novels for, nor is it a great way to convince somebody they're wrong.

I think it's much more effective to write a story that raises questions:

Is this really the best way to live? Is this really fair? Do you know this is going on in the world? How much risk is too much?

Questions make us think bigger than statements do. Your writing will be more effective if your story raises questions like that than if it states this is the best way to live, this is what's fair, and this is how much risk you should take.

Ask for sensitivity readers.

You can probably guess this, but sensitivity readers are people you ask to read your book because you are aware that something you have written could unintentionally offend a person in their situation. For example, I might be a sensitivity reader for a book that deals with epilepsy, since I have personal experience with it because of my son.

This is a great way to make sure you are treating an important issue with the respect and accuracy that it deserves.

Sometimes we need sensitivity readers even when our story is about something that we have personally lived with. Angie Thomas is the bestselling author of The Hate U Give, a book written from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old black girl about racism. Even though Ms. Thomas is also a person of color and has had personal experience with discrimination, she still got sensitivity readers for her manuscript. On a panel at ALA, she said words to the effect of, "Not everyone has had the experiences I have. I wanted their experiences in the book too."

So even if it's a topic you think you're an expert on, consider asking others for their take too.

I absolutely love books that open my eyes to an issue I wasn't aware of, or that gives me a new perspective on a belief I already hold. What book has done that for you?


24 comments:

  1. An MG book called Out Of My Mind shone a whole new light on people with cerebral palsy...a book called the Running Dream brought me into the life of an amputee. Now, I try to do similar things--my books deal with alcoholism, abandonment, autism, cancer, etc. But I'm not trying to preach or SHOW people anything than a cast of characters that deal with serious, real-life issues. I don't write my books to SHOW PEOPLE ABOUT TOUGH STUFF. I write because tough stuff is all around us and it can't be ignored. And pain is just another way of showcasing the small, beautiful things in life.

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    1. That's a really great way to phrase it, Taylor. Thanks for sharing.

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    2. The Running Dream is a really good book. :)

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    3. Thank you Stephanie, and yes, I LOVE the Running Dream, too...one of my favorites!

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  2. I recently discovered what I want my books to show most of all: I want an energy and a passion for life to be flowing out of every word. My characters each have their own type of 'beat'--some are introverts deeply invested in enjoying their work, some are extroverts determined to enjoy the time they have to the absolute fullest, and some simply try to notice the good and fun things that come their way. Each of them are different, but they all ooze passion and energy.

    At the same time, I'm also tackling weightier questions. It's a superhero story, so like many of them, it's interested in the issue of death, specifically killing dangerous enemies. Is there "always another way" or is killing sometimes necessary? I hope to make readers think, while also helping them feel that passion for enjoying life.

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    1. Wow, that's great, Christine. I'm impressed with how much thought you've put into this.

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  3. This is such a great post!! My current WIP has a non-Christian MC who interacts with secondary characters who are Christian, and I SO wanted to stay away from those secondary characters becoming walking sermon texts ... these tips really help!

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    1. Yes, that's a real struggle in Christian fiction, Olivia. Very worth the effort, though!

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  4. This is hugely helpful for me--as a Christian most of my books have very Christian messages, so it's very hard for me to keep my characters from being /perfect/, or to make them just an opportunity for me to tell people what I think. So this post was very timely. Thanks, Stephanie!

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    1. That's a struggle for many authors who write Christian fiction. The balance is tricky!

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  5. Ooh - I love this! I've been working on putting together some similar ideas about the do's and don't's of "preachy" writing and this is so timely. Thanks, Stephanie! <3

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    1. Oh, good! I bet you'll put together a great list, Stephanie.

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  6. The Narnia books and others of similar genre (Donita K. Paul's DragonKeeper series particularly) show such a beautiful picture of Jesus, one that I am very good at forgetting in my perfectionism :) I love stories for how they can cast new light on something and I want to write the kind that move other people like that too

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  7. I understand what you mean about showing other viewpoints, but one of my themes is about acceptance. For example, my MC has OCD and has had problems with rejection because of it that kind of spark my plot. Does that mean I'm also supposed to show "strong, respectable characters" who are noninclusive to people like my MC?

    -novelistinthedark

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    1. Really great question! In that situation, I would say no. But I do think it can be more powerful or more "real" if you doing paint those characters as "good people are inclusive and bad people are exclusive." So maybe your characters who are inclusive sometimes accidentally exclude others. Or sometimes the people who are exclusive get excluded themselves.

      Is that helpful at all?

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    2. And that should have said "if you don't paint those characters" not if you don't "doing" those characters. Sheesh.

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    3. That makes more sense. Thank you so much! That is definitely something to think about.

      -novelistinthedark

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  8. This is such an incredible post! I've been working hard on keeping my scenes from being preachy, especially pivotal ones to do with the characters' spiritual life, and this will definitely help to keep me on the right track. Thanks!


    Alexa
    thessalexa.blogspot.com
    verbosityreviews.com

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  9. Great read, Steph! You mentioned Jodi Piccoult, and I think she does a fantastic job at showing many different sides of an issue. It's not an easy skill set to master, but I do think it helps with empathy and other actual real life things.

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    1. She's amazing at it. I feel like she created her own genre.

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  10. This is helpful, Stephanie. I like your point: "Create strong, respectable characters who believe the opposite as your character". And your advice to "Ask for sensitivity readers." is a good tip. I might do just that.

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