Writing Excuses 11.47: Issue As a Subgenre, with Steven Barnes
Key Points: One way to do issue as subgenre is as a subplot. Another way is to embody the thesis and antithesis in characters, and allow their ideas and actions to play out. You can frame those within almost any genre. Be aware of your philosophical, strategic, and tactical levels. Tactically, write the story, then find your theme. Be careful when you start with theme, because you must make the story entertaining. Beware of making a character the mouthpiece for the issue, and a one-trick pony so that every time they walk onstage, they say the same thing. Do your research, avoid just throwing in stereotypes. Understand what can go wrong with the issue, and avoid those landmines. Talk to the population affected by the issue, find out what their concerns are. Look for the mundane aspects, as well as the flashy big stuff. Start with the assumption that people are people.
[Mary] Season 11, Episode 47.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Issue As Subgenre, with Steven Barnes.
[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, Steven Barnes.
[Brandon] Will you tell the audience just a little bit about yourself?
[Steven] Well, in terms of what they’re interested in mostly, I’ve published about 3 million words of fiction. About 31 novels at this point. I’ve worked in television, wrote for Twilight Zone and Outer Limits and Stargate and Andromeda. Four episodes of Baywatch. Please don’t hold that against me.
[Steven] Is that science fiction? Well, think of all the silicon lifeforms [garbled – hanging around] on the beach. I’ve got a great Pam Anderson story I’ll tell you another time. But also comic books and plays and stuff. It’s just… Writing is just something I’ve always loved. I’ve been blessed enough to be able to spend a lot of my life doing it.
[Brandon] Excellent. And you are a wonderful speaker, so I’m looking forward to having you on the podcast. I’ve listened to you chat about things.
[Brandon] We are talking about issue as subgenre, meaning you’ve got a deep and important issue you want to cover in your story, but you want it to be more subtle. You wanted to be a subplot in a story. How do you weave this into another story and make it authentic?
[Steven] Okay. Well, you’re starting with a presupposition that I’d like to have a chance to take a look at.
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Steven] I think one way of doing it is to make it as a subplot. I think it’s a perfectly valid approach. Another is to ask, “What is the guiding question that you’re asking?” For instance, if… I’ve done several things that had to do with race. So let’s say that the question I wanted to ask was… There are only two basic questions to ask in all of philosophy. What are human beings? And, what is the world that they see? In the same way, there are two basic questions to ask in writing, in art. What is man that thou art mindful of him? What is the world that he makes? What are characters and what are the situations that they’re in? So, if, let’s say I look out at the world as a black male in America and said, “The world does not know me. The world is telling lies about who it is that I am.” When I was in first grade, the teacher sorted me into the slow reading group because of my race. I knew right then that the world did not know me. It became more and more painful as it went on, because there’s this gap between the way I feel about America and the way America felt about me, apparently. So I hid myself for a long time in my work. When I finally began to say, “You know, I’m being a coward not to address this question more directly, and I don’t want to be a coward in that way.” If I have greater freedoms than my father had, and he had greater freedoms that his father had, then basically it’s my turn in the barrel. It’s my turn to do something. But how do I do it without hurting my career? The answer that I came up with was allow me to create a thesis, the thesis being that human beings are basically just human beings, that people are people. That the biggest differences between groups are the territory that they find themselves traversing over the course of their lifetimes. The counter thesis to that would, of course, be, “No, it’s not the territory, it’s the nature of the beast, the nature of the human beings.” So the trick would be to set up a story where you have the thesis and antithesis, or you have a character whose position is “human beings are just human beings,” and other characters whose position is “no, they are different.” And allow their ideas and actions to clash with each other. The reason… I was just saying this to Mary yesterday. The reason that Socrates was afraid of drama, did not like drama, is because it is possible to present a thesis without dialectic, without direct dialectic, without the direct ability to use logic to examine the premises. Because you’re engaging people emotionally. So if you have that, if you know that’s what you want to do. If you want to write about child abuse, if you want to write about obesity issues, if you want to write about gender issues, anything. What is your thesis? What is the counter thesis? If you can find a way to appreciate the humanity of people on either side of the issue, and this is critical. The question of racism, for instance, is not who is good, us open-hearted nonracist people, and who is bad, those evil racist bigots, but rather there are people who think that the innate qualities of a human being are… That race is a determinate of quality and capacity and those who believe differently. That is simply an intellectual position. That is simply a belief system. It has nothing to do with the morality of the person. The actions that you take as a result of that will be moral or immoral. But basically, some of the… To be honest with you, some of the best people I know have been racist. They simply had a belief about the nature of human beings that we now consider to be unpopular. But the Encyclopaedia Britannica used to state straight out that black people were inferior to white people. This was the ground that we covered, this was the water we swam in, as we began to look more and come up with different answers for why Europe conquered Africa as opposed to the other way around. Is it possible to look at these things? Is it possible to understand the history of America without casting blame? Without guilt, blame, or shame? Now you can write a story.
[Howard] I want to jump to the thesis versus antithesis framework. It’s kind of brilliant, because if you take that and you identify those and then you say, “Well, what’s my story going to be?” You… Well, I want to tell those and I want to frame them inside a heist. I want to frame them inside of a romance. Or I want to frame them inside of a romance inside of a heist. But until you know the thesis and the antithesis, when you are writing your heist, and you hit the touchstones for that issue, if you haven’t already, if you don’t already know which questions you are asking, which answers your characters may be presenting, the writing is going to be a lot more difficult in finishing your heist novel or your romance.
[Steven] If I might offer, then we need to move between logical levels here. That there’s the philosophical level, there’s the strategic level, and there’s the tactical level. The philosophical level is I will embrace the humanity of all of us and I have a commitment to opening people’s eyes. That’s my position, philosophically. The strategic level is I will do this through story. Okay? But the tactical level, the working out of the thing, is just write your damned story.
[Steven] First, just write the story. Have fun with the story. As Ray Bradbury said, “Just go running barefoot through the grass.” Have a wonderful time in your first draft. After your first draft is over, hopefully… Hopefully, that’s when you say, “What was the story about?” That’s when you find the theme. Now, if you start with a theme… Like I started with wanting to write something that had something to do with race in America. I’m in a dangerous position. Because there is a very good chance that my story’s going to become dogmatic. It’s going to be bogged down. It’s going to sound like a movie of the week on oxygen. Or spite. I’m going to start with something that every scene is going to be pounding home that this is bad and this is good. That’s not going to work. If you start with a position, then you have even greater responsibility to be entertaining. As one of my writing mentors once said to me, “Your book had better be as entertaining as a sixpack of beer.” Because that’s about how much a hardcover costs. If a sixpack of beer gives your reader more entertainment than the value of the book, you will never get to promote your position.
[Steven] You’ll never get to share your position.
[Brandon] One thing… I want to jump in on this. I was talking with some people on the cruise. By the way, I didn’t give you guys a chance to say hi.
[Brandon] I was talking to some people on the cruise last night, and talking about this idea of a character becoming a one-trick pony, which I think is that danger realm, where you… They’re gonna be… Like I’m going to talk about this important issue. I’m going to make this character the mouthpiece for this important issue. You run the risk of everyone around them being intricate, deep, complex and interesting, and whatever this one character comes up, they become the person that says, “But I have to talk about whatever I’m passionate about.”
[Mary] Yeah. The thing, as you were talking, I was like, oh, that’s a really good tool to use to make sure that my character has a philosophical, a strategic, and a tactical approach to whatever the problem is… To whatever the issue is that my character is trying to approach. But it’s… That they may again, using the gerbil example from last week, that my character has a philosophical view of gerbils, then they have the strategic view of how they’re going to attempt to… Wait, no. Strategic was…
[Steven] Well, let’s say philosophical position is… What is the meaning of life?
[Mary] What is the meaning of gerbils.
[Steven] We should have pleasure.
[Steven] Strategic is I find gerbils to be the most beautiful, intelligent, sweet pets in the world. But people around me do not appreciate gerbils. So my tactical thing is how do I get the people around me to accept my love of gerbils? I cannot quote Richard Gere on this…
[Steven] Although he did write the introduction to the anthology.
[Mary] To the anthology about gerbils?
[Mary] I’m just kidding.
[Steven] But the writer then will come up with a way… How can I show the value of gerbils? Other people are going to say snakes are important, dogs are important, cats are important. But there are things that are special about gerbils. They’re smart. They’re small, so they can get into places. I will create a situation that…
[Mary] Only a gerbil can solve.
[Steven] Only a gerbil can solve. So people will have a chance to see the wonderfulness of gerbils.
[Brandon] Let’s stop for our book of the week. Which is actually a book and a course. Right? Steven, will you pitch these things at us?
[Steven] Yeah. Well, I’ve got a book that I… That’s going to be coming out early next year, probably in February, called 12 Days. Which is a contemporary… It’s a gentle love story set against the background of the Apocalypse.
[Brandon] Okay, yeah.
[Steven] It’s great fun. My wife and I are doing a course basically called Revolutionary Writing where we take in the question, “How do you write for social change?” Were going to be exploring that. We’re actually going to be doing it live in a couple of weeks. But then it will be online. So for the people listening to this, you’re going to want to go to createthenarrative.com and sign up for it. It’s going to be absolutely great. For those who are listening to this live, if you’re interested in it, let me know and we’ll be in touch with you. Or, I’ll share anything about it for free, because you guys are already here, man. Just ask me anything you want, I’ll be happy to give away everything that I’ve been doing.
[Mary] This is why you need to, on the cruise.
[Mary] Thank you for [garbled]
[Howard] Yeah. Let’s hear it for our audience.
[Steven] You guys are great. I love you.
[Howard] Steven, can you give us the name of that book again?
[Steven] Oh, it’s called 12 Days.
[Brandon] All right. I’m going to take us a slightly different direction and ask… This is… I have an issue that I want to… My readers… Our listeners to do a better job at, which is I want to make sure that they research before they jump in to talk about an issue. I want to make sure that they know what they’re talking about, and are approaching the issue with sensitive eyes. So my tactical decision, or I guess my strategic decision, is to ask you guys the question of how would you recommend that our listeners do their research and not sound like idiots when they tackle one of these issues?
[Mary] Can I use an example, which is… I’m going to have to be a little bit careful about, because it involves a book that I narrated. So I’m going to have to talk around it a lot. I could tell that the author was writing from such a good place. The author wanted diversity and wanted to promote diversity. I could tell that that was the author’s intention, that was the issue that they were trying to tackle. But they were not sufficiently conversant with issues surrounding diversity. So they had this diverse cast that were all stereotypes. To the point that with one of the characters, I was like the best I’m going to be able to do for this character, to keep this character from sounding like a stereotyped Chinese gardener is to make him sound like Yoda. Which was not a good choice. But it was written with broken English and it was on the page and I’m like I can’t… I cannot do the accent that is actually written here. But I can tell he’s coming from a good place. Because this is the hero character, but he also fell into the magical… Well, I was going to use magical Negro, but…
[Steven] No, no, no. The magical other.
[Mary] He fell into the magical other categories. So one of the things that you absolutely have to do, which Brandon is talking about, is know not just the positive aspects of the issue that you’re looking at, but also very specifically you need to know the negative aspects. You need to know all the ways that an… You need to know as many of the ways that an issue can go wrong as possible so that you don’t go down those paths. One of the best ways to find that out is to go to the population that is most directly affected by that and read the things that they are writing for each other. Because conversation in community is very different from conversation outside community.
[Steven] Yes. God, that’s smart.
[Howard] It’s also worth noting that when someone has come from a good place and done it wrong, that community will recognize that. They will be able to… They will usually be able to point at it and say, “Oh, I really didn’t like the way that was done.” You, as a writer, knowing that it has been done wrong, that will help you identify where a lot of the landmines are as you are doing your homework by talking to members of that community. There are some specifics there that… I don’t even know what they look like. I just know there are landmines, and somebody may have already stepped on them.
[Brandon] I referenced the book that… I’m not a minority, but in my class, I was the kid that stood out. I referenced a book that completely misfired for me for these exact reasons, so it’s not just… It’s certainly important on issues like racism, but whatever the issue is, if you are misfiring for the people who are most affected by that issue, you’re doing something wrong. It happens a lot.
[Dan] So, I think part of the problem… Part of the problem that makes us fall into this pit here is that we’re focusing on the positive and the negative aspects of a particular issue or a particular condition. What really… What we live with day-to-day are the mundane aspects of the particular issue. Again, going back to Hollow City, this is what I learned as I was researching mental illness and schizophrenia is I could read all about the big stuff and the flashy stuff, and every single time I would end up creating a cliché, because those are built on big, flashy things. Doing the research of again, what is it like to live with it, reading not the clinical discussions of schizophrenia, but the therapy books about “So your spouse has schizophrenia, what do I do now,” that just tell you how to get up in the morning and how to go about your day and just little, mundane things that help you familiarize yourself with what it’s really like instead of just the big, shiny, fancy stuff.
[Mary] One of the things that we talked about at the beginning of the cruise, which I’m referencing here just because… There’s a thing called micro-aggressions, which are the small day-to-day slings and arrows. It’s very easy to forget about them. One of the things that we do on the cruise is we try to make sure that our audience, our… The people on the cruise are aware so that they aren’t accidentally committing one of these things. There are… These are the… You… Every listener here has something that occurs in your life that is a micro-aggression. It’s someone who mispronounces your name every single time they say it. It’s someone who devalues your work every single time you say it. The number of times… The micro-aggression that I get with puppetry is, “Oh, you must love children.” I’m like, “I mean, they’re fun, but that has nothing to do with my artform. That’s not my artform.” So it’s… One of the things that you can look for, and it’s going to make that character feel more fully fleshed, is… Are the micro-aggressions. As Dan says, not everything has to be one of the macro ones.
[Brandon] Yeah, my… I have a good friend who’s six feet seven. He… The number of phrases he hears over and over again… “Oh, you’re like twice as tall as me.” He’s like, “Yes, you’re three feet whatever.” Like, if you really… These sorts of things really bother him. “You played basketball…”
[Mary] You must of played basketball.
[Brandon] That one just like… It’s something to the rest of us, you’re like, “Why would that bother you?” But then you think about hearing that as the first thing people say to you every time they meet you, and how it just can really get grating. He says people remember him and identify him not by what he’s done but by what he is. Which is really bothersome to him.
[Mary] It’s not that these are evil people, and it’s not an intentional act of… Like, the people who put a hyphen between Robinette and Kowal drive me crazy. I know that they are not doing it to be mean. But my name has never had a hyphen, Robinette is my middle name. It is not a maiden name. But I have a disproportionate anger every time I see a hyphen because it is the umpteenth time that it has happened. When someone argues with me about it…
[Mary] Which happens. I’ve… I… I know. It’s my frigging name. But I’ve had people say… I’ve said, “Can you reprint the name badge? It has a hyphen, and my name isn’t hyphenated.” I’ve had someone say to me, “Oh, I was told very clearly that your name was hyphenated.” I’m like, “But…”
[Steven] By someone who was wrong.
[Mary] By someone who was wrong. By someone who is not me. I am telling you… And this is the kind of thing you can look for with your character.
[Steven] I… The biggest thing to do, if you’re going to write about the other, from my point of view, is to begin with the assumption that human beings are just human beings. That they are going to have the same needs and drives and hopes and that therefore, the better you know yourself, the better you’re going to understand characters. There’s a South African khoisan, the people in The Gods Must Be Crazy, tradition… There’s a philosophy called Num, which is saying there is one soul looking out through many eyes. To start with that assumption, you’re almost never going to go wrong. If you ass… You might have to modify that. Because it is… There are… You could have an al… You can do this with aliens. Because an alien species that does not value their young enough that they have… At least enough to sustain their population will be dead within a couple of generations. So you can assume that they may have different attitude. That they may generate so many young that they actually have a value on eating as many of them as possible. So we can’t treat them the same way you treat people who only have three or four young maximum at a time, and it’s a rare thing. But yet and still, questions about survival are core. So everywhere you look in the world, it’s very much like Sting said in that song, if the Russians love their children too, we’re going to get through this. If you look out at people in the things that are going on in their community are dangerous or damaging, the infant mortality rate is high or the life extension is… Their lifespan isn’t as high, assume that they love life as much as anybody else, they love their children as much as anyone else. Even if there seems to be something abusive going on, if that goes on for multiple generations, their population will crash, they will die out. What’s going on? Why does it seem that these people are so different? If you start with that assumption, and move onwards from there, I think most of the time, you’re going to be okay. At the very least, you won’t be insulting.
[Mary] With that, I mean, one of the things that you can recognize is that once you understand the core nature of a character and the issues that are affecting them, it becomes very easy to find other genres to pair the story with. Like, with the example that Steven was just giving us, that would be one that would be really, really easy to pair with drama, because drama, as the way we have been describing it, is about a character’s internal state and the way it is affected… And the way it affects those around them. So when you’ve got an issue that the character is dealing with that is around their children, of course that’s going to affect them.
[Steven] But it also works well in comedy. Robert Sheckley was a genius at taking a situation just like that. People land on a planet and they get invited on a baby hunt. It’s like they can’t understand. This doesn’t match their sociobiology, it doesn’t match their view of how cultures… They don’t understand that these people create so many children every generation that unless you kill 90% of them, everybody on the planet will die.
[Mary] Small Gods by Terry Pratchett is another great example of this. It’s totally an issue book and it is funny.
[Brandon] It’s hilarious.
[Mary] It’s wonderful.
[Dan] There’s a…
[Mary] It’s a coming-of-age book as well.
[Dan] There’s a movie called The Russians Are Coming…
[Dan] That is a straight up comedy about kind of fish out of water about a Soviet submarine that kind of…
[Steven] Washes into the bay.
[Dan] Goes aground in Maine. The core issue there is Soviets are just like us. It was an issue story that was hilarious.
[Steven] If you do that, you are doing sacred work. The storytelling is the elders of the village telling the younger people in the village, “This is what life is.” As we get more stories from all around the world, we start seeing that the same story patterns emerge, no matter where you go through all of history. The universality of humanity becomes crystal clear. For the first time in our history as a species, in the 250,000 years we’ve been around, we’re actually starting to trade our stories from all over the world. This is why I think it is so… You guys, what you’re doing is so important. It’s critically important, if you want your grandchildren to survive on this planet, to tell stories that are honest, that are strong, that are courageous, that are funny, that are heartwarming, that are terrifying. Follow that. But at the core of them, let there be truth, and you’ll be just fine.
[Brandon] On that, I think we’re going to end. That was perfect. Mary, you’ve got some homework for us regarding the magazine that people read two weeks ago?
[Mary] All right. So, two weeks ago I asked you to pick up a magazine that you had nev… In an area of… That you are not necessarily interested in, and read it cover to cover including the ads. What I want you to do now is I want you to write a monologue from the point of view of the target audience for that magazine. Someone who would pick that magazine up. I want you to write a monologue where they’re dealing with an issue that they’re concerned with. When you do this, see if you can pair it with a subgenre at the same time.
[Brandon] Thank you to our Writing Excuses cruise members and participants.
[Brandon] Thank you so much to Steven Barnes. This was an excellent episode.
[Brandon] We appreciate you. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.