Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

11.48: Elemental Issue Q&A, with DongWon Song

DongWon Song, literary agent with HMLA, joins us for a Q&A on the elemental genre of “Issue.” Here are the questions, which were submitted by the attendees at WXR ’16:

  • Can only certain people tackle certain issues in certain stories?
  • Science Fiction often explores issues by changing the context. Why does this work?
  • How would you handle an issue story in short fiction?
  • How do you make sure to research the issue enough without paralyzing yourself with the fear that you cannot do it justice?
  • How do you convincingly write a position with which you disagree without convincing your readers that you agree with it?
  • How do you write about a deeply personal issue without making it sound like a personal sob story?

Credits: This episode was recorded aboard Oasis of the Seas by Bert Grimm, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take an ensemble cast, and write each member’s position on a given issue.

Thing of the week: Gift Child, by Janci Patterson.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Q&A Summary
Q: Can only certain people tackle certain issues in their stories?
A: Yes. Imagination and empathy let you project yourself into someone’s experience, imagine it, and render it. The farther away, the harder. No. Maybe you can, but should you? Consider the cost.
Q: Science fiction seems to excel in making issue stories engaging by changing the context a little bit. Why does this seem to work better?
A: Science fiction and fantasy, puppetry, anything that lets you look at the issue from one step outside the real world, from an angle, let’s the audience look at things in a different way, see connections, and draw their own conclusions. Science fiction and fantasy lets you make a metaphor to attack an issue from a different direction. Without instant triggers, your audience can hear the whole discussion.
Q: Do you have any tools for handling these issues in the context of short fiction?
A: The same tools. Represent multiple points of view, let the character be wrong sometimes. Attach it to a different main driver. Don’t answer the questions, let the reader think about them.
Q: How do you make sure you research the issue enough, while not paralyzing yourself with high expectations to do it justice?
A: Break your research into two parts. In part one, learn what you can to tell an honest story. In part two, get readers who know the issue to let you know what you need to fix.
Q: How do you avoid accidentally including an issue that you didn’t notice in your writing?
A: You probably will accidentally include issues in your writing. Good alpha and beta readers, and learn to say I was wrong. Recognize that your first reaction is based on the culture you grew up in, while your second reaction is who you want to be. Consider hiring a sensitivity reader.
Q: How do I write a perspective I don’t agree with convincingly, without convincing my readers that I’m not on the side of the argument?
A: Empathy and imagination let you embody that position in a person. That’s not you, that’s the character. Make sure there are people in the text calling them on it, and examples in the text of the problems with it. Hang a lantern on it.
Q: How do you write about an issue deeply personal to you without turning it into a look-at-me sob story? But still retaining accuracy and emotion behind the issue?
A: Show the positive aspects too. Gallows humor can help. Also, metaphor, to transform the situation.

[Mary] Season 11, Episode 48.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Issue Q&A with DongWon Song.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Brandon] And we have special guest star DongWon Song.
[DongWon] Hello.
[Brandon] Will you tell us a little bit about yourself, DongWon?
[DongWon] So, I am a literary agent at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. I represent science fiction and fantasy for both adults and teens.

[Brandon] Excellent. So. We have questions from our Writing Excuses cruise members.
[Brandon] Once again, these are excellent questions. We are not going to be able to get to all of them. I apologize. But this is a really good question that I think is a good follow-up to what we’ve been having a lot of people ask, which is, “Can only certain people tackle certain issues in their stories?” Austen asks.
[DongWon] No.
[Mary] Yes.
[Brandon] Okay. Discuss it.
[Howard] Fight!
[DongWon] I think anybody… So, in my mind, storytelling and writing is where imagination and empathy interact. Right? You are projecting yourself into somebody else’s experience and you are trying to imagine that and render that is faithfully and as specifically with as much detail and context as you can. That’s very, very hard to do. The farther you get from yourself, the harder that task becomes. So when you are writing somebody who has a very specific history and issues that aren’t familiar to you, it’s really hard. So most people who do it, fail. And fail in ways that can be very hurtful to other people. That said, I’ve seen it done very, very well by… In a number of situations where it shouldn’t have worked by sort of any normal objective standard.
[Mary] So, my counter to that is that I think that… You’re right, that anyone can write it, and they can actually write it well. The question is whether or not they should. A lot of times when you’re dealing with an issue, what you’re dealing with is a point of pain for a particular population that you are not part of. Anything that you get wrong in that… The fall back from that is going to hit population, it’s not going to hit you. I mean, sure, people might be angry at you. But the negative impact, the lasting impact of that is going to land on people that are not you. The other thing is that looking at it from a colonialist point of view, what you’re doing is you’re profiting from someone else’s pain. So it is a question and it’s not that I think you can never do it, it’s that I think you need to look at the cost of it, and whether or not what you have to say has in fact already been written by someone from the community, and whether or not your story is going to overwrite their’s because you’re coming from a dominant paradigm and they are coming from a marginalized group. That happens frequently. So yes you can write it. Whether or not you should and should publish it is a different question.
[DongWon] In part, we are disagreeing over the half a percent of cases. 99% of the time, I agree with Mary.

[Brandon] All right. Science fiction seems to excel in making issue stories engaging by… I’m just going to change the phrasing on this one. By changing the context a little bit. Why does this seem to work better? Cory asked this question.
[Mary] So I… Okay, I’m going to jump in again. I’ll use a puppetry example, because we do this with puppetry all the time. When you do science fiction and fantasy, when you change the context with puppetry, anything where you’re having it a step removed from the real world… What you do is you basically tip it at at that a slight angle so that the audience can see things in a different way, which allows them to see the connections between things and draw their own opinions about it, as opposed to let me present something straight historical and give you my opinion on it, and therefore this is the polemic that I’m presenting you with.
[Brandon] I think with science fiction and fantasy, you can make a metaphor for an issue happening right now. I remember a time when Cory Doctorow and I were talking, and he made the point… Which has been made by many other people, but that science fiction is not about the future and fantasy is not about the past, they are both about the now told through different lenses. By taking the science fiction or the fantasy a few steps away, what it allows you to do is write a metaphor that can attack an issue from a different direction and can divest itself of a little bit of the specifics of the current conversation and get a little bit of those big questions. Like Steven Barnes was saying, “What is the big philosophy of this? Let’s deal with it in a different way.”
[Howard] We did this exact thing, and by we, I mean Mary, when she generalized with gerbils in talking about issues and said, “You know what, we’re going to hold up the love of gerbils as a stand-in for all possible issues.” What this does is, it removes the instant trigger from certain members of the audience so that they can hear the whole discussion instead of shutting down at a certain point. That is incredibly valuable. It allows your story to be more widely accessed in that regard. I feel like the danger is that you will end up simplifying, you’ll end up glossing over, you can end up missing certain key points. But there is definitely a need for the love of gerbils.
[DongWon] To use a military metaphor, you’re controlling the terms of engagement. You’re controlling the battlefield, and figuring out what are the… What’s the terrain we’re actually going to have this fight on. As an example, I think Ursula K. LeGuin is the unparalleled master of doing this. Left Hand of Darkness and Dispossessed both.

[Brandon] All right. So Caroline asks, “Do you have any [strays] for handling these issues in the context of short fiction?”
[Mary] It’s… I’m the short fiction writer. It’s the same tools that we use when we’re dealing with novels. That you want to make sure that you represent multiple points of view, you want to make sure that your character is wrong sometimes… Sometimes that’s the way you represent multiple points of view without having to have a bajillion… A cast of bajillions, is to have your character recognize that they’re wrong. You attach it to a different main driver. It’s true that in short fiction, you can’t have as many threads going, but you can definitely have two or three, and as long as the only thing that you have going isn’t that issue, you’re much more likely to be able to pull something off that is engaging. Also, jumping back to something we said where I quoted Elizabeth Bear, don’t answer the questions. And in short fiction, even more so. Short fiction, you definitely have room to leave questions open for the reader to continue to think about. Which is really your goal with the issue stories, is to leave the reader thinking.

[Brandon] I love Celeste’s question here. How do you make sure you research the issue enough, while not paralyzing yourself with high expectations to do it justice?
[Dan] Break your research into two phases, is what I try to do. The first phase is I want to learn a bunch about this so that I can tell what I believe to be honest story. Then, the second phase is when I send it out to readers. If I’m dealing with an issue, specifically, I want to send it out to readers who know about that issue and who know more about it than I do. That’s really a second wave of research in some ways, to say, “Yes, you got this right. No, you got this wrong.” You have to have readers who are willing to work with you rather than just demanding random person off the street who is involved with this, “Read this for me.” But that can help you just get started and get the writing done, and then clean it up.

[Brandon] Yeah. That actually helps with Austen’s question, which can expand upon this, so if you guys want to throw in more stuff… He asks, “How do you avoid accidentally including an issue that you didn’t notice in your writing?” Having good alpha and beta readers can help with this. I’m going to take the tactic of you probably will accidentally include issues in your writing. One of the things that has been very helpful, that the community has helped me with, is learning to be okay acknowledging that you have made a mistake on a controversial issue and being okay with being wrong and just owning up to it. Right? Which is really hard to do. As writers, you want to be defensive of your writing and say, “Oh, but I didn’t mean that,” and things like this. No one… It’s okay if you didn’t mean it. But you still did it. So just saying, “You know what, I’m still learning about this thing. I screwed up there. Thanks for pointing that out. Could I use you as a resource next time to help me not do this again? Or could you tell me in specific some of the things that I’m doing wrong?” Like you… Giving yourself permission to be a racist on occasion, and own up to it and say, “I was racist. I will do better.” Is a really important thing for people to be able to realize, I think.
[Mary] There’s a thing that someone said to me… Actually, it was a thing that was going around on Facebook. But that counts as someone said to me. It was that your first reaction to something is based on the culture that you grew up in. And you have to recognize that in America, we are growing up in a racist society. Your second reaction is who you want to be. So if you do screw up, yes, that’s bad. And you have to recognize that that causes damage, even if it’s not something you did intentionally. But your reaction to being told that you screwed up, that’s who you want to be.
[Dan] My brother had this happen when he was writing his most recent science fiction Dark Energy. Which is awesome, by the way, you should all read it. It’s like Independence Day meets Gilmore Girls. It’s fantastic.
[Dan] The main character is Navajo. My brother, he has been involved with that community for a long time. He lived on a reservation for a year or two. So he was trying to include this character and he was trying to do justice to her and to her family and their culture. Sent it out to readers, and they pointed out, “No, this is wrong. This is wrong. This is incredibly offensive.” He owned up to it. Fortunately, because he was doing his research and doing his due diligence, he caught all of those things before he published it, and he had the chance to own up to those mistakes, to change it and to fix it, and the book is fantastic.
[DongWon] It can be worth engaging a sensitivity reader to review what you’ve done. If you know you’re dealing with something that is particularly difficult. I think it’s you, Mary, actually that has the great guide on your website on how to find a sensitivity reader?
[Mary] I was thinking about Writing from the Margins… Justina Ireland’s website…
[DongWon] Yeah, you linked to it. That’s how I found it.
[DongWon] So it’s actually [garbled Justina?] who has that on her website. That’s absolutely right. She has a guide for finding sensitivity readers. It’s a paid service, it’s not something somebody’s doing for you as a favor. Those are alpha and beta readers, and they’re useful in different ways. But in specific cases, it can be very helpful to have someone take a look at it, especially if there’s a specific issue you want them to look out for.
[Mary] Just remember that culture is not a monolith, and that that person cannot give you a seal of approval. There is no POC seal of approval. I’ve asked.
[DongWon] You didn’t get one? I have one of those.
[Mary] Well, is yours… I’m not POC. Could you stamp this for me?
[DongWon] No. I haven’t looked at it yet.
[Mary] [Whimpering] The point is that they can tell you things that you have gotten wrong. They cannot tell you that yes, this is 100% right. So when someone calls you on something, it is something that you got wrong.
[DongWon] There are also occasions… This is going to be a complicated sentence. There are occasions where they can say something was wrong, and you don’t have to listen to them. It’s up to you to decide the scale and the impact and you can make that choice. It’s still your book. But you have to stand by it when people come back to you later and say, “This was hurtful,” and you knew that ahead of time.

[Brandon] All right. Let’s stop for our book of the week. Our book of the week is a book I really liked by one of my favorite authors, Janci Patterson. Janci, we’ve had her on the podcast a number of times, is a fantastic writer and she has an issue book which is a really different issue, which is why I wanted to pick it. She has a book called Gift Child. Which is this awesome book about… So there’s a teenage girl whose sister and husband can’t have a child, and the teenage girl decides she is going to get pregnant and give the child to them to solve their problem of infertility. Which… This is obviously… The teenager has some issues, and the whole thing… But it is brilliant in that Janci is capable consistently through her books to find issues that no one else is talking about that have these really great pitches but when you dig into them, it’s not that it’s silly, there is a real emotional issue going on in this book. She does these things consistently in her novels. It’s one of the things I love about her writing. So, Gift Child by Janci Patterson. You guys should all read it.

[Brandon] All right. Next question comes from Austen. I think we had one of his earlier, so good job, Austen. How do I write a perspective I don’t agree with convincingly, without convincing my readers that I’m not on the side of the argument? An example, writing a KKK member without sounding racist.
[DongWon] So this goes back to the thing I said earlier that writing is about empathy and imagination. That KKK member is still a human being. He comes from a place. He has reasons for doing what he does, and they may be bad reasons. He is clearly doing bad things. But the more you can figure out how that is a specific person who has a history and a context, the better you’re going to be able to show how he is making a case, and still you, as the author, can disagree with it. But if you embody it in a person, that’s not you, that’s the character.
[Howard] It is less important to me that my readers know my personal positions and politics than it is that the story that I wanted to tell was told correctly. If my personal politics are really important… If it’s important to me to convey those to my readers, I just tell them, “This is how I feel about this thing.” If a reader comes to me and says, “Wow. You really wrote that David Dukeish character like those words were coming out of your mouth.” I’ll say, “Thank you. That research was very, very painful to do, and I worked very, very hard getting that right. I’m glad that it worked, and I’m glad to have been able to get that clear of my mouth so that now I can write more pleasant things.”
[Mary] The danger, though, is that… I think this is what Austen’s question is actually getting to. That you can do these things and have a convincing character, but without a counter narrative to it, it’s very easy for that to reinforce a negative paradigm. So the thing that you have to do is, you can have the character be doing all of these things and have a completely convincing, believable character, but there have to be people in the text who are calling them on it. And there has to be examples so that the text itself points out the problems with this. The societal disapproval. There’s an example from Jane Austen that I use sometimes, which floats past a lot of people because we don’t have the cultural context for it. Which she says Mrs. Elton… This is a paraphrase. Mrs. Elton’s father was a merchant, if one can call him… Dignify him as such, in Bristol. This sounds like we’re… This is a snooty reaction to merchant class. But the cultural context that the reader would have had is that Bristol was a slave port. So Mrs. Elton’s father was a merchant if one can dignify him as that in Bristol. It takes a completely different context. So the thing that… That line does not play for a modern reader because that context is no longer there. So if you are having a character who’s doing something offensive in the book, you need to make sure that the context of that is present for the reader so that the reader sees the impact of it and the reader understands the circumstances that led up to that.
[Brandon] I would say hang a lantern on it is one of your best tools for these sorts of things. It can be really hard. Because, let’s say you’re writing as I have done a secondary world fantasy which is an awesome epic fantasy world that is also deeply sexist and racist. And nobody really knows that they are. This can get really difficult. So you have to find opportunities to hang a lantern on it to show the impact on certain people even while society is moving forward. It takes practice, it takes work, it is very hard. But we do things as writers that are very hard because they are satisfying and they challenge us.

[Brandon] Joe asks, “How do you write about an issue deeply personal to you without turning it into a look-at-me sob story? While still,” he asks, “But still retaining accuracy and emotion behind the issue?” It’s a great question.
[Mary] I wish Desiree was still here.
[Dan] I think part of it is to make sure that you are showing the positive aspects as well. If you’re telling a story about your own life, a memoir, something that happened to you that was painful and that was tragic, that inflicted something on you, make sure that you’re also showing other aspects. To the extent that you can. If there was literally nothing positive going on in your life for those entire years of the story, then it might be a sob story and that’s what you’re trying to tell. But showing… And I’m thinking about my mom right now. She has MS, she has different periods of health, and there are times when she can’t walk, there are times when she’s completely bedridden. Were I to tell the story of her life, it would include a lot of that sad stuff, but it would also include all of my happy memories with her, and the times when we would all eat dinner on her bed because she couldn’t go to the table. So when you have these problems, we tend to look for the bright side anyway. Make sure you’re including all of those in your story.
[Howard] A few years back, I wrote a creative nonfiction piece called No, I’m Fine which, in about 1200 words, walks the reader through my brain as I’m having a mental health episode. It really is, in one sense, look at me, wow, this is sad. But my goal with that story was to make the reader feel what I felt so that they could understand a particular mental issue. That was the whole point. After 1200 words, that was enough. If I wanted to put that in a larger work, I would have to couch it with a bunch of much more pleasant things because I wouldn’t want a longer work to be all about that.
[DongWon] Gallows humor can be very useful, also, in breaking that up. I think Hyperbole and a Half, just queuing up what you said, is a great example of a way to make a very hard story about mental health issues incredibly funny and sort of endearing and uplifting in a lot of ways. I think the other tool goes back to the first question of, especially in science fiction and fantasy, the metaphor is useful. Apply it to give yourself some distance. Transform the situation so your… It’s informed by your experience, but it’s not actually your experience.

[Brandon] I think we are going to go ahead and call it there. Dan, you have some homework for us.
[Dan] Yes. So. We’ve been talking about issue for a month. Next month, we are going to talk about ensemble. So your homework this week is to kind of bridge those. You’re going to take an issue and create an ensemble out of it. Take an issue that you haven’t dealt with yet in any of the previous homework that we’ve given you. Gun rights. Or price gouging in pharmacology. Something that you haven’t talked about yet. Then examine as many sides of that as you can. Create a cast of characters who each espouse a different viewpoint on that issue. So that you have a large ensemble cast. Next month, we’ll talk about ensembles.
[Brandon] All right. Thank you, DongWon.
[DongWon] Thank you for having me.
[Brandon] Thank you, Writing Excuses cruise members.
[Applause. Whoo!]
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.