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I’ve written a few posts that touched on message fiction over the years, especially back during the Hugo Award fight. The latter may have ended, but the general push continues.

Once, in the comments on this blog, someone challenged me to give examples of message fiction, and I surprised him by giving examples of message fiction that I agreed with, including one book that I personally edited. You see, message fiction isn’t good or bad. It’s often referred to derogatively, but its goodness or badness is the same as that of all art: in the eye of the beholder.

That doesn’t mean it’s the goal. In fact, the whole reason why it tends to be looked down on across the spectrum is because it limits your audience.

As I tell my students, you can’t really examine something without first defining it.

message fiction (n): a story or other fictional entertainment that cannot be enjoyed without first agreeing with its message.

In other words, you can have fiction with a message you disagree with and still enjoy it, if the enjoyment doesn’t depend on accepting its premise. For example, I greatly enjoy M*A*S*H, even though it’s (often blatantly) counter to many of my beliefs. I can laugh at Hawkeye chasing skirts without promoting promiscuity, just as I can enjoy the screwball Army humor without being required to protest any war or assume the military is that stupid. Some episodes are heavy-handed, but it’s still pure entertainment.

For me, the truest example of entertainment with strong secondary messaging is still, and probably always will be, the original series of Star Trek.

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Today, we’re told we should expect things to be heavy-handed. We need it, they say, because society needs it. We have to meet quotas and check off boxes; sex sells, and don’t worry about exposing your kids to racy television because, hey, it’s all racy these days. But we shouldn’t expose them to violence, unless the show fits certain values.

The same thing is true of books, and probably moreso. It’s a truism, especially with science fiction and fantasy, that TV shows and movies will lag about a generation behind novels. This isn’t an accident; the people who grow up reading these novels eventually become the people who make, produce, and consume the same kind of entertainment they grew up with; TV and film requires a much wider audience to break even, and so there’s a delay built in. If you want to see where your children, and much of society, will be in twenty years, take a look at what’s on the shelf.

And increasingly, I find one very disturbing thing there, especially in the YA section. That’s right. Bad quality writing.

What, did you expect I was going to go off on a moralistic crusade?

No, the issue at hand is that today, our books are increasingly forceful in their message fiction, letting entertainment take a backseat to a crusade of whatever values the author finds most important at the time. Really, go ahead and have a message. But fiction with a message is not necessarily message fic. If you really want to spread a message, then go be entertaining first. Let them enjoy themselves, and reach a larger audience with your story.

That’s why Star Trek was so successful at this. It had some very heavy-handed episodes, of course; who can forget the blatant anti-racism message of “Let This Be Your Last Battlefield”? Or the Cold War message of “The Omega Glory”? Vietnam and proxy wars in “A Private Little War”? And yet even the most heavy-handed episodes were fun. You got involved. You cared about the two bi-chromatic aliens figuring out that racism was futile, and were saddened when they couldn’t give up their hatred. You looked at the Comms and Yangs and were glad that endless war hadn’t yet come. You saw the innocence of the Hill People shattered by the Klingons delivering gunpowder technology, and felt that quiet thrill of horror as Kirk faced the dilemma of matching the same technology, guaranteeing war among those they hoped to deal with peacefully, or watch entire cultures be wiped out in the name of noninterference.

We love Star Trek for its thrilling action, but we remember it for its skill at holding up a mirror and making us think, even for a moment, that it was a window.

By the time I was old enough to appreciate how bold it was for its time, Star Trek taught me it was completely normal for an American, a Scotsman, a Japanese, a Kenyan, and a Russian (to say nothing of numerous aliens) to work together with no cultural frictions, and all appropriate for kids to watch. We all know the story of Nichelle Nichols wanting to quit because she didn’t do anything and being talked out of it by no less than Martin Luther King, Jr.; but I distinctly remember being a little kid and thinking Uhura was the busiest person on the ship because she was always doing something. Damage control, coordination, communications . . . Scotty might operate the ship, and Kirk might command it, but Uhura ran the place. Even as an adult, being able to see why Nichols wasn’t happy with her role, I still can’t shake my younger self’s feeling that whenever Uhura left the ship, no one knew what to do because she wasn’t around to give orders.

And that was the impression of a little boy in the 80s and a teen in the 90s, long after the Civil Rights era. Dr. King was right: Uhura was an icon for the entire nation. How many boys and girls in a previous generation grew up with that same impression? How many used her as a role model?

Not once did she get singled out as black among Starfleet, and that was something that continued for most of the later installments. Racism very rarely came up. We saw a future where we were past all that. We saw a black who was an equal. We saw a Russian who wasn’t a threat. We saw a Japanese who fit in without being a token.

It’s a powerful message, made all the more tremendous by how subtle it is. We didn’t have it thrown in our faces. Today, you almost always have to pause the show to acknowledge this one is different, look and see. And then occasionally you have that same thing happen, such as in the first season of The Flash when Captain David Singh is revealed as gay not by pausing the show, but by a minor moment when he refers to his fiance as “he.”

That is the lesson of Star Trek. If you want to make something seem normal, then treat it as normal. Shock value has its place, but you don’t need it all the time. You can show a strong woman or a confident man without tossing them into a sexual situation; you can show someone is upset without strong language; and you can deliver a message without taking a break from the action.

The problem with heavy language and sexual suggestiveness isn’t prudishness. It’s that it becomes less exposed to children. Keep it a three-generation show (as they say in the UK — something a grandparent, parent, and child can all watch together) and you can reach everyone. The strength of Star Trek was in reaching everyone with that kind of story, without feeling like you were getting a Sunday sermon or a political speech. Pure entertainment doesn’t mean it has to go in one ear and out the other.

The following is a guest post from Peregrine North, a longtime friend. She gave me this review to publish back in March. Now, I’ve had a lot of life hit me in quick succession, which is a good chunk of why this blog has been so neglected, but that doesn’t make it any less my fault that it’s July and only now am I getting around to posting it for her. She’s certainly reminded me enough times, and I kept putting it off until after the next crisis. One crisis turned into another, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to stop anytime soon, so I’m squeezing a few minutes in now to do what I should have done months ago. 

You can find Peregrine North at her website, along with her music. If you’re in the right geographic area, you can even hear said music in person. 


Star_Wars_The_Last_JediIn my review of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I decided to focus on my primary interest as a writer: characters. Instead of being a movie review per se, it’s more of an exploration of the arcs and plotlines surrounding the various characters or groups of characters in the film, with looks back at The Force Awakens and the original trilogy. For me, character creation and development are the best part of story writing, and excellence in these departments is critical to any good story. Let’s see how The Last Jedi scored. View full article »

This Saturday (yes, it’s short notice; sorry about that), I’ll be giving an online lecture through the Catholic Writers Guild. The topic is on the Hero’s Journey, a concept invented and popularized by Joseph Campbell. Here’s the blurb:

March 24 – 7:00 p.m. EST
Writing the Hero’s Journey
Presenter: Matthew Bowman
A look at the “Hero’s Journey Format,” based on the work of Joseph Campbell; why it works with the audience, why it’s so prone to failure, and how to adapt it for your own story.

To sign up, you can click on this shiny and well-crafted link. Admission is very affordable: $8 for CWG members, and $10 for non-members. All you need is a device capable of loading AnyMeeting software, which at most means a browser plugin that you can delete later.

I give a lot of convention lectures, but this is the best chance you’ll have of getting to listen to one of them for a whole year, unless you’re going to be at AwesomeCon next week or you’re a student at Christendom College — or if the Guild has me back before then, which in part depends on the success of their new online lecture program. So drop by, have a listen, and see what else they have to offer.

I have a policy 517YQxDo8PL._SY346_.jpgagainst review requests: namely, I never do them anymore. I can’t tell you how many requests I get for reviews from authors. The problem is that some authors proved we can’t have nice things; so, to avoid any appearance that accepting review copies means I am guaranteeing a favorable review, I just don’t accept them anymore.

The closest I get is with something like this book, The Long Black, by J. M. Anjewierden. The author and I happen to be in a few Facebook groups together, and he mentioned some financial difficulties; nothing very urgent, but that he was depending on sales from his books. I’d never taken a look at them, and I made my policy clear, but I said I’d at least put them on my long, long list of books to review. I have books I’ve been meaning to review for literally years. And while Jared shares several Facebook groups with me, he and I are hardly friends. In fact, I really just happen to recognize his name in passing.

Jared mentioned this three days ago. I’m already writing the review. Why? Because I made the mistake of looking at the first few pages to get a sense of the story, bought it, and wound up reading the whole thing in three sittings, most of that on Sunday.  View full article »

Intern Number One, signing on.

My daily purpose in the peculiar Novel Ninja family is a little hard to describe. Hannah and I are being trained side-by-side, but with very different specialties. Hannah, with her love of flow and passion for the written word, is spending her days gleefully working through documents sentence-by-sentence to polish the beauty in them; I, for the most part, am playing in my own little sandbox, learning how to stitch together inconsistencies and help chains of events feel realistic and alive. One of the tools Bowman and I use to keep ourselves entertained and our minds fluid is a little thing I call Culture Chess.

Culture Chess is an exercise that developed very early on in my career as a mook. It’s a way that Bowman-Sensei and I play with our shared love for big-picture thinking. It’s a mutual thought experiment; starting with nothing, or nearly nothing, we slowly build the workings of a story. View full article »

How to Review

One of the many things I’m behind on, especially in regard to this site, is my pile of review to-dos. That doesn’t mean manuscripts; it means books I’ve read (or listened to, in the case of audiobooks) and think are worth talking about.

But a review is actually a delicate sort of art, and — as readers here well know! — I tend to be more on the verbose side. That actually isn’t the way I should be doing it, and as I get back into the swing of things I need to watch that. Part of it is that because this site exists to focus on writing advice, I like pulling out lessons; but that isn’t always the best use of a review even for here, even if the only people reading the reviews are authors looking for tips and tricks.

So what does go into a good review? And what’s the difference between a review and a critique?  View full article »

A Wild Intern Appears

As I mentioned previously, I have two interns I’m training this summer, known as Thing 1 and Th– Wait, no. Intern #1 and Intern #2. There. That’s better.

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Well, okay. They have names of their own. I’ll just let them introduce themselves. View full article »

Open for Business

As many of you know (especially those of you who have been querying me for submissions), I’ve been very busy with a backlog for over a year now. That has been whittled down, and I’m now accepting submissions once again. Remember to follow the submission guidelines!

In addition, I’m training two interns this summer who will transition to more independent work as their experience increases. For now, if you’re willing to provide guinea pigs specifically for intern training, you’ll get a discount over the regular Novel Ninja rates (which are already below average, because frankly, the industry freelance standard is aimed at large companies and not the single authors I normally work with).

Please see this page for submission and pricing guidelines.

The LEGO Batman Movie

the_lego_batman_movie_promotionalposter

And I now have this as an actual poster, too.

I haven’t posted in over six months, making this my longest stretch of silence yet. The reason is that I have been extremely busy without a lot to blog about. But this is me; if a movie based on the Lego brand can’t get me back here, what could?

You may recall that two years ago, I got to see an advance screening of The LEGO Movie (and then got interviewed about it on TV). Well, I got the same invite to go see The LEGO Batman Movie, and I took Intern #2 with me as she lives and breathes Batman. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.) My expectations were higher than what I had for the original film, but here’s the short review: my expectations were still exceeded.

Don’t worry. This review is spoiler-free. View full article »

It’s short notice, but Declan had to cancel his weekly show, so I’m stepping in. It’s The Catholic Geek Radio Show, part of my other site, and it’s normally a guest-interview show. Well, I don’t have a guest, so it’s just me talking about stuff . . . including editing, if you want me to! You can call in or use a chat window. The details are over here.

You can even call in and say “Hey, why haven’t you replied to my email yet?” *hangs head in shame* Yes, I know I still have a bunch to go through, some of them a couple months old. I haven’t forgotten you! Unless I have, in which case it’s probably a good idea to call in and let me know.

By the way, one of the things I’m talking about is the new author co-op we’re starting at CG, as well as a chance for you to hear some of my lectures online. If you’ve been interested in those, you might want to take a listen.

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