Friday, November 7, 2008

Not-So-Secret Agenda

author of NIGHT KILL
A “Zoo-dunnit”

As readers, we want our stories infused with passion—passion for elegant writing, for accurate, detailed descriptions, for complex characters, for the tale itself. Authors are energized by the same passion, but we also write from the lessons and scars of our lives. Given a voice that reaches beyond family and friends, does that imply a responsibility to nudge, persuade, or warn our readers about how they lead their lives? How far can we go with our heart’s conviction, with our agenda, before the story suffers and sags and readers drift off?

Agenda is not the same as theme. In Case Histories, Kate Atkinson weaves the theme of parenting girls through examples of death and loss, episodes that intermesh at the end. She describes different styles of parenting girls, but does not appear to promote a particular brand. Barbara Neely’s mystery series about Blanche, an African American cook and housekeeper, are grounded in race relations. It’s no easy matter to avoid an agenda there, but messages are almost subliminal, offered through Blanche’s crisp and sardonic viewpoint, and never heavy handed.

Agenda is not the same as information. One of the great charms of mysteries is a gentle education. In her series starring Benjamin January, Barbara Hambly leads us into the streets and lives of nineteenth century New Orleans, a compelling historical snapshot. Dana Stabenow shows us how to live in the Alaskan wilderness. Lee Child’s character Jack Reacher is fascinated by mathematical puzzles that point to solutions of story problems. If the subject interests us, or is so well written as to interest us, we absorb information with pleasure, strands of the warp on which the story is woven.

Agenda is a call to action or a plea for behavior change, but not necessarily a boot in the rear. In TKO, Tom Schreck’s social worker protagonist trusts in people no one else will, including a convicted murderer, and his faith is ultimately justified. The message, if it is a message, might be that sensible kindness to losers is a right action. Susan Conant’s series about a dog trainer convincingly illustrates the desirability of training your dog properly and the poor results of skipping this step. Louise Penny, in A FATAL GRACE, creates characters that tolerate emotional abuse of a child and are then motivated by guilt. A cautionary tale?

Writing NIGHT KILL, I steered an uneasy course between my desire to write a good yarn and my sense of urgency about environmental issues. In the end, I settled on a goal to merely leave people a bit more aware of the connection between human activities and wildlife. The messages are so few and so mild, I fear that they won’t get through. This is a first novel, though, and with luck, there will be others, and my courage and skill will grow sufficient, I hope, to carry this farther. In my zoo setting, issues abound that can easily be tied to characters and story problems, controversies that make it into the headlines regularly.

Exhortation comes naturally to me and I have to be careful. The challenge for an author with an agenda is to ensure the story keeps center stage. No one wants to be lectured, even if the scolding is from a fictional character. That dubious cliché “show, don’t tell” is nowhere more appropriate, but even the showing requires subtlety.

Or is an agenda, an attempt to persuade, not an option or an obligation, but simply inappropriate for genre fiction? Should authors muffle their personal convictions, avoid characters and stories that demonstrate the lessons their creator managed to learn? I’d be interested to hear what readers and writers think about this challenging topic.

About the author:
"It’s been a long and crooked path to this “zoo-dunnit”. My first significant writing focused on the adventures of a young beaver, with many one page chapters (The Log, The Dam, The Coyote, etc.) Later, at the age of nine, I moved away from creative non-fiction to novels that featured wild horses escaping bad humans and fierce wildfires. I drew inspiration from Black Beauty, the Black Stallion series, and everything Jim Kjelgaard wrote (Big Red, etc). Another favorite was a tattered book about a man who lived in a tree house with raccoons. Lady, the family terrier, was my best friend. I had no idea who Nancy Drew was until I was almost out of high school. more...


Marta Stephens said...

Ann, welcome to MB4! Great cover and what an interesting sounding read. I wish you the very best of luck with it.

With respect to your question, I don't think an author can help but slip between the lines of his or her book. When I hear "write what you know" yes, I think of the obvious—the things we are conscious of—our experiences, etc., but emotions are part of that experience too.

So when you say, “Writing NIGHT KILL, I steered an uneasy course between my desire to write a good yarn and my sense of urgency about environmental issues. In the end, I settled on a goal to merely leave people a bit more aware of the connection between human activities and wildlife. The messages are so few and so mild, I fear that they won’t get through.” I’d have to say, yes it will get through. You’re passion will come through no matter how slightly it’s been referenced.

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Hello, Ann. Glad you could guest blog for us today. Wonderful topic! (and I, too, love your cover art.)

When I read your piece, I thought of the feedback I've received from my own readers. They claim my protagonist, Gus LeGarde, has taught them about life. Some of them reported actually changing their lives for the better because of him. This was a pleasant surprise, since I had hardly intended to teach my readers about life, children, or how to deal with loss and trauma. I had simply pianted a picture of how I would have reacted to these scenes, and unraveled the mysteries in the forefront. Astonishing, to say the least.

Very interesting analysis here. I'm sure your passions will shine through without clobbering anyone or without fading into the background. Best wishes with the book!

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

You've given me a lot to think about, Ann. Thank you. I'm a storyteller by nature. I like the idea of stepping back and considering what it is I'm really saying. It seems that all my books center on the parent-child influence and how that effects adulthood.

I knew that, but now you've got me wondering why.


Ann Littlewood said...

Wow! Murder by 4 has thoughtful and attentive readers! Marta, I hope you are right and that readers don't need (or deserve!) a poke with a sharp stick. I'll take your message to mean that a strident tone isn't necessary for the passion to come across.

Aaron, changing lives... what a responsiblility. Or is it an unexpected gift that sometimes comes to a writer? Is it something we can ask for ? I'll think deeper about that.

Joylene, I agree. We need to think about what we are really saying about people and the world we live in. My books are full of parent/child relationships also. Thanks for commenting.