On controversy and themes

You’re going to have to bear with me on this one, because I’m going to wander a bit…

So, yesterday I received a rejection on one of my short stories and the comment I received on the story was, “If we took this story, I can just imagine the (anonymous) suggestions to the editors!”

I don’t happen to disagree with the comment.  It was a slightly twisted idea that used humor related to an issue that is very serious.  As the submission sat there longer and longer, it occurred to me that they might actually accept it.  And I wondered if that was a good thing to have my first published story be something that would very likely upset certain people.

Nobody really knows me.  Readers of this blog know me through what I post here, editors may start to know me by what I submit to them, but most people will judge me by my stories.  So, do I want my first published stories to be controversial in some way?  Especially before anyone really knows me and understands my “true thoughts” on certain matters?

I didn’t set out to write a controversial story.  I didn’t sit down and say “what I can write that would be different and shock people.”  (I find most people who do that end up writing crap.)  The idea just occurred to me and I figured it would be fun to write.  And I knew it would be upsetting for certain people.  (I didn’t show it to one of my betas for that very reason.)

Interestingly, I have a few jotted down story ideas that might be equally troublesome in their own right.  And, after reading that rejection, I kind of want to go write those stories right now.  Because no one knows me.  Because I have no brand.  Because I’m not making money at this right now.  So I can write those stories and not lose anything.  I don’t have the fear of failure that I probably will in a few years if I do start to get published.

There’s psychology involved here, right?  If I write stories of type A, B, and C.  And the A-type stories get favorable feedback and start to get published, but no one likes the B- or C-types stories, then over time I will gravitate to the A-type stories.  People tend to do what they’re rewarded for doing.  (Which is how lots of dysfunction occurs in corporate environments.  See “On the folly of rewarding A, while hoping for B” by Steven Kerr.)

So, basically, there are two stages where I can pull this off with relative impunity.  Right now, when no one is looking or cares, or the end of my career, when I won’t care.  In between, once I have some publication credits and some people who follow my work, I will always in some part of my mind be weighing what I think of writing against what my readers want and what the market wants.  (And, if I’m not, my agent or editor will be.)

And maybe others can ignore all those factors and just be themselves.  And those people are probably the true geniuses who can create a work that breaks through established patterns and forges their own path.

I am not that person.  I like to land on my feet.  So, when I figure out how to do so, I will.  Right now I’m like one of those 30-sided Dungeons and Dragons dice.  (I still have mine somewhere, ugly as it is.)  I can write any number of stories–SFF, contemporary fiction, humorous, psychological, sociological–and I’ll keep rolling the dice until I get one that works.

But once I start to find that magic place where I can get acceptances, I know I’ll start to refine that formula.  (I’ve always been a bit anti-authority, so I’ll probably push the boundaries a bit, but certainly not as freely as I am now.)

Which leads me to the idea of themes.  The more I write, the more I’m seeing different themes in my work.  It seems I didn’t know what issues really matter to me until I started writing stories and now the same thoughts kept winding their way through the stories.

It seems I’m worried about the future of a world with limited resources, that I like to explore power/control issues, that I like to explore what’s hidden behind the scenes and how people are happily oblivious of their true reality, etc.

But the one that’s been disturbing me a bit is how women’s power issues have crept into my writing.  I grew up in an environment where it was just a given that women were equal to men and that women could do whatever they want.  This wasn’t preached or discussed, it just was.

Obviously that isn’t the truth in many parts of this world.  The recent rape stories from India have been particularly disturbing to me, but there are any number of other countries in this world where it’s clear that women aren’t treated as equal and are not given the same opportunities.

(And many places in America where this is the case as well.  But in the home I grew up in and the communities that formed me, that was not the case.)

So, I consider myself a feminist.  Not in the “fight the male patriarchy” and use “womyn” instead of “women” sense.  But in the very basic, women can do whatever they damn well please sense of the word.  It also means that I believe that a woman who chooses to be a housewife is just as justified in her choice as a woman who wants to be a fighter pilot.  Women are individuals with individual needs, wants, and desires and should be allowed to live their lives in a way that meets those needs, wants, and desires.  As are men.  It’s all equal in my world.

(This is a good time to note that the story above did not in any way deal with women’s issues.  This post is really about two separate yet related ideas.)

In my writing, however, I’ve noticed that I am currently skewing towards more traditional gender roles, which surprises me given my own views.  One of my stories is about a housewife. (Daughter of a President and wife to one of the most powerful men in the world, but still a housewife).  In the world of my first novel, 90% of the population lives in traditional male-female family units.  (Not because I believe that’s necessary or even right, but in an evil society that is trying to control the population and limit change, variety and individual choice is anathema.)  I’m also working on another short story where the women of the court are constrained in such a way that they have no individual agency.

Story ideas just come to me.  I don’t try to think them through too much.  But when I start to think about the reason behind these stories, I think it’s because there’s a part of me that wants to explore the freedoms we have in our modern world by presenting worlds where those freedoms don’t exist or are actively taken away.

My writing is not advocating how I want the world to be.  More exploring how ugly some of the alternatives are or will be.

The problem is, that many ugly things don’t seem ugly at first, which means that in my writing I’m not standing on a pulpit screaming “this is bad!”, I’m just presenting it as the way that particular world exists with the reader left to reach their own conclusions.

(And, of course, the housewife story doesn’t fit that mold.  In that case, I just think there are some incredibly gifted and intelligent women who see how the business and political worlds operate and think “screw that, life is too short.”)

And, of course, I’m writing those types of stories, but I also just wrote one that was very fun and whimsical with no underlying themes like the ones mentioned above.  Now, if that one gets published first, you may never see the others.

I don’t know.  Just a few random thoughts as I try to navigate this writing world…



About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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3 Responses to On controversy and themes

  1. Dave Higgins says:

    I think worrying about the moral or social unacceptability of our work is a sign it is a good draft: if the idea can horrify then it is a fragment of the self-centred, unconscious, real heart of a human mind instead of being as true as a candidate’s smile.

    So, while I do not try to shock and will often tone down some aspects or add counterbalances when editing, part of me quite likes a draft that makes me think I will be ostracised if anyone ever reads it.

    • mhleewriter says:

      I like that way of thinking about it.

      I went ahead and sent the story in question back out yesterday before I could begin to doubt myself. We’ll see how it fares.

  2. Pingback: The Heck Verses | Davetopia

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