Is it important to say something with your writing? Do you sit down to write with a mission or are you just telling a story for fun?
Is it possible to do both?
And is it necessary?
I’m being a bit philosophical today. I should be setting up a query letter for my novel to send to agents but summarizing the book into one paragraph led me down the path of ‘why did I write this anyway?’.
My novel, tentatively titled A Cold Sort of Joy, came about because I love the end of the world books. I was hooked with Earth Abides, and The Stand, and I’ve read a lot of the genre over the years.
I’m not going to lie. When I started writing this, it was originally intended as a fanfiction. I refuse to ignore my roots, I write fanfiction and as my instructor put it when we were discussing whether I should talk about it or ask my fanfiction readers to try my novel, this is where I served my apprenticeship and I am welcoming everyone to enjoy my journeyman work.
My point though, was that as I started the story, I didn’t have any particularly high minded concept. But as I wrote the story, it went quite far afield from the fanfiction concept and I started to consider actually writing it as a true, straight fictional piece.
Part of what I had been doing when I initially started the story was playing with the post apocalyptic trends and themes. If you read in the genre, then you know the genre has changed over the years. In the early 1980s, the trend was with continuing characters and series – The Deathlands books, for example, set after the “nuke war”, the Out of the Ashes series, The Survivor, etc. The significant difference between then and now, is that books about the world ending have gotten a lot more political and oddly, a lot more similar. Let me give you some common elements.
- Someone, always a man, has been thinking for years that something like <insert world ending event> will happen and has been preparing for possibly years.
- There is usually at least one man in the character list who is some sort of special ops soldier. Usually a Navy SEAL. If he’s not a SEAL, he’s an ex-Green Beret. Or a Ranger. Or was a Force Recon Marine. There is always a super soldier of some sort.
- People are religious in a way that is on the one hand overtly and bluntly evangelical Christian, but is also often very slapped in, like the author understands it is a required thing to pay lip service to, but rarely connects the faith to the characters and their actions. People have daily Bible study for example and sometimes make silly decisions due to their Christian values (a notable example in one book was a character proudly noting how he found an abandoned cabin, spent all winter in it, and didn’t touch any of the prior owner’s stored food because “that would be stealing”) but then casually murder and torture those who run across them. Mind you, in the end times, it probably pays to be quick on the draw but NO ONE ever reflects on the morality of killing as it pertains to Jesus despite all the bible studying
- Main characters are always white people of conservative right wing backgrounds. This is actually quite different from the books written in the 1970s and 80s – although I must be fair and note the representation of minorities wasn’t *great* but it was there.
- Generally, even if the world ending disaster was purely natural, the US Government is somehow a villain, either by repressing all the truly free survivors, or by somehow joining up with the UN, or the European Union and forcing us all to be liberal Europeans. This often also involves insisting people convert to secular humanism, or to give up their guns like liberal douches, or in one hilarious example, to convert to veganism.
- Generally, there’s usually a subplot about how guns are being taken by whoever is the story villain.
- There’s also usually at least one chapter where all the men head to the gun storage area and basically talk about their extensive gun collections.
- Because there tends to be a strong Christian feel, there is at best little to no mention of homosexual characters. At worst, there’s evil gays.
- Women come in several forms. They are whores, or solid, maternal presences who stand by their men and do womanly things like preserve food and nurse the wounded, or else they are as dumb as doorknobs.
So, along with post apocalyptic fiction predicting a lot of why certain people voted a certain way, there are some really problematic trends. Here’s the thing. Just because there are problematic trends, that doesn’t mean as a writer, I have to embrace them. My original love for this type of story started back when it was often heavy handed to a fault in embracing diverse characters. (It wasn’t paradise, the characters were often tokens and often stereotypical but non white people did exist). That’s when I decided if I was going to write a “real” post apocalyptic novel and not a fanfiction, I was going to break out of some of these trends.
*To be perfectly honest, following my gut instincts and doing what I think makes a better story makes the book less appealing to the traditionally right wing market.
- While my heroes actually have a castle to ride out the end times, a castle with a working farm, they are caught flat footed by the deadly sickness and have little to no preparations beyond having a full pantry and a lot of antiques that can be repurposed. Their advantages – namely windmills, solar panels, and greenhouses for organic gardening – are explained as a part of a Crown project that actually exists.
- I have five ex-military sorts. Two were tankers in the Gulf war and both are crippled. I have one young ex-combat engineer. There’s a retired RAF nurse, and a young woman who went to Sandhurst and worked in logistics. These are realistic, not flashy, military careers.
- While my characters do occasionally pray to God, usually when they are super stressed or in danger, their religion is not a big part of their world. This is part of why I chose a country in Europe as opposed to the US. Also, my characters occasionally acknowledge how awful it is that they now have to kill people to survive.
- Hmmm white people. Ok, look, the book is set in modern day England and the main characters are members of an aristocratic family. So, yeah, some of the characters are white people. But… my ex combat engineer is Irish Traveler, one of my tankers West Indian, I’ve got an Indian teenager, and a Polish doctor, which reflects England’s diverse nature. Also the lead male is bisexual, and there’s a female bisexual and an openly gay man.
- Well, clearly since the story is set in England, it’s difficult to have the US government as the villain. That’s another reason I chose the setting to be in England (hey look at that, how the setting is shaping the story) Because I did some research, I have some idea of the political divisions in the UK, but there’s no where near the level of hostility.
- Guns are so different in the UK. That said, gun access is still an important concept in my story because well, they’re just so handy for killing people.
- I have no chapter devoted to the gun collection.
- In my novel, gay people survive the end times. Their gayness is discussed in terms of how dangerous it can be for them in a world where there are no laws and you can be casually stabbed to death for being homosexual.
- On women… there’s a variety of smart, clever women who know how to take care of themselves. They aren’t dominant, feminist bitches, in my opinion. Some of them are pretty girly girl. And let me be honest, I think women can be whores, or dumb, and I certainly know women who stand by their men and all that is found in my female characters. At the same time, they do clever, brave things, they make mistakes, they have regrets. They do these things because they are characters, not stereotypes or place holders for the men to worry about.
I was trying to write a story that I would enjoy reading and that would actually make people enjoy the genre as well. The post apocalypse genre is about rising from the ashes and I know if I went with the um… more formulaic post apocalyptic set up, that I would find readers because I have read enough of these books to know how to appeal to the readership and I can write decently in a formula set up.
But I went with my gut and with what I wanted to write. I hope it pays off.