Why do you rant?

I got an email wanting to know why I put the occasional political or social-issue rant into a writing blog. I’ve previously had blog guests ask me the same question in comments.

The answer goes like this. I hate politics. I hate social-issue strife. For years I lived in a voluntary news blackout zone, because I had come to realize that, A) news stresses me out big time, and B) I could not do a damned thing about any of it.

But as my worldbuilding got more complex and my stories got bigger, I realized that my plotting needed more than what I’d previously been doing. And so, as a sort of worldbuilder’s sudoku, I set myself the intentional task of creating solutions to seemingly unsolvable social and world issues. I gave myself the rule that I could not magically remove some portions of the puzzle in order to fix things—no “Suddenly the UN decided to play fair” wave of the wand, no Age of Aquarius +5, Enemies Listen to Reason and Embrace Peace card, no National Organization of Women Remembers Its Reason for Existing dice roll. I could only work with the tools at hand: the current governments and leaders with all their flaws, the current laws, the current political and social climate.

Once I figured out workable solutions, I posted them to the blog. For me, they had served their purpose. Things that I learned by indentifying the sources of large-scale problems, playing out various scenarios, and coming up with what seem to me to be workable solutions to chosen ends translated into better storytelling and deeper and more complex problems, with less easily resolved solutions, in my work.

But there’s more to it than that….

The hardest, darkest, most complicated social issues I reserved for my novels. I’ll let you in on a deep, dirty secret about my fiction. My fantasy novels are allegories. Fire in the Mist, Bones of the Past, Mind of the Magic, Minerva Wakes, Hunting the Corrigan’s Blood, all three DEVIL’S POINT books, Glenraven, Glenraven II, the entire SECRET TEXTS trilogy, Vincalis the Agitator, Memory of Fire, The Wreck of Heaven, Gods Old and Dark, Talyn, Hawkspar: Every single one of those books is, down in its core, about a current social or political problem, and where I’ve been able to figure out a real-world solution in the working through, I’ve included it. (The real-world solution is never the ending, which is the fantasy, magic-works-here solution.)

For example, Vincalis the Agitator, that story about Wraith, a boy born immune to (and from) magic who brings about the fall of the Dragon Empire, is at its heart the story of the effect of welfare upon recipients and how government uses welfare as a weapon against those it most despises. I won’t tell you any of the real-world issues in the other novels. They’re there if you care to dig for them, but they are not critical to the understanding or enjoyment of the novel. And to find them, you really have to dig. Western Union is about sending messages. Fiction is not. So I made it a point to bury the real-world issues so deeply that, even though they fueled the storytelling and created the plot and fed off of my anger and frustration that these issues existed, not a single reader has ever written me a letter or an e-mail saying, “Is Vincalis really about welfare reform?” Or, “Is Fire in the Mist really about …?” I forced the stories to stand on their own as stories, and left the messages for myself.

But that’s why I rant. I’m sharpening my knives for my fiction.

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About the author: Novelist, writing teacher, on a mission to reprint my out-of-print books and self-publish my new ones.

25 comments… add one
  • eitje Oct 4, 2006 @ 7:29

    I don’t have a tremendous experience with your books – only FitM & the world gate trilogy. but, after reading lohen’s raucous posts about the constant political undertones, and other writers’ counterpoints to his inciting and insightful words, i’ve found that i’m going to have to hit Amazon on Friday. 😉

  • hollylisle Sep 24, 2006 @ 13:22

    Zoe—The long answer to your statement is here.

    The short answer is, “Good.” If you found something in it that mattered to you, the books served its purpose.

  • Zoe Sep 23, 2006 @ 7:31

    A side note: I always thought Vincalis was an environmentalist allegory.

  • Like_A_Machine Sep 22, 2006 @ 19:42

    *I planned a story….

  • Like_A_Machine Sep 22, 2006 @ 19:41

    Wow, that’s fantastic. Remembering back to the last time I wrote (before this odd, “I’m too lazy to write the stories I plan” phase kicked in), I don’t believe I have ever done that. Though this blog post definately makes me feel challenged to attempt it; couldn’t hurt, right?

    I have used themes from songs in my writing before. For example, I used planned a story including themes from Dream Theater’s 24 minute progressive masterpiece ‘Octavarium’, but by the time I was finished planning, it had become a trilogy, and the plot had become so huge that I got overwhelmed and decided to take a break from that story. I’ve also experimented with themes from various Sentenced, Iron Maiden, King Crimson and even Johnny Cash songs.

    Anywho, I’m getting offtrack. This was a fantastic read, very glad that I decided to check your site today. Thank you very much.

  • hollylisle Sep 22, 2006 @ 14:57

    Bettye—the art in the whole thing is in giving readers who don’t want to deal with passionately-held beliefs or philosophies a way of reading the book while ignoring them. It requires a great deal of layering, and a whole lot of pulling out those things that are too obvious. And even then, sometimes, as hard as you try, things slip through.

  • hollylisle Sep 22, 2006 @ 14:53

    Rick—I have to look at it this way: The only way I could write without angering some readers was if I said nothing. If nobody hated my work, no one would love it, either. Same thing goes for just living my life. I could avoid ever upsetting anyone in this blog, but to do so, I could never say anything important.

    It’s worth it to me to have readers who are passionate about what I write, even if it means I also have readers who are passionately against it.

  • Rick Sep 22, 2006 @ 10:07

    If it makes you feel any better, Holly, I’m the exact opposite of Lohengrin. Sure, I read your works before, but as a result of your blog I am more likely to pick up your books. So I don’t think you have much to worry about. Where one door closes, and all that.

  • Bettye Sep 22, 2006 @ 9:47

    Right now my critique group and I are trying to convince one member to tone down his “beliefs.” He keeps hammering us over the head with them.
    An important discovery I’ve made is you CANNOT write a book of any length and hide. You will show the world who you are and what you believe.
    So, if you hope to be a published, selling writer remember; you are out there dancing naked in Times Square. JIggles and all.

  • joela Sep 21, 2006 @ 23:13

    thanks for sharing your secret. i actually had some suspicion about vincalis. same with hunting.

    i think all writers incorporate the real-world in their writing sooner or later. why not? we don’t exist in vacuums. so i’m not surprised when writers discuss non-writing topics. personally, my eyes glaze over and i jump to another post or blog. i AM surprised, though, your readers can’t see that you’re more than the writer at that desk. that’s like imagining actors are their characters.

    oh, wait….

  • Zoe Sep 21, 2006 @ 11:42

    I disagree with your politics most of the time, but I certainly won’t stop reading your books because of it. There was only one time when I noticed a passage in one of your books (Talyn) that looked a lot like one of your blog rants, and I’ll admit it detracted from the story a bit for me, but I loved the book anyway, and recommended it to a friend of mine, and am eagerly awaiting the next in the series. Authors’ political and philosophical views only keep me from reading their books when they start using the books as little more than vehicles for those views, and you don’t do that.

  • hollylisle Sep 21, 2006 @ 9:36

    Monica—I keep saying you have to start writing fantasy. The fantasy/SF readership isn’t racist, your books wouldn’t be segregated, and dammit, woman, you would kick ASS at it.

    And I know what you mean about ranting sapping your energy. If I do it too often in the blog, I lose my writing edge. If I do it once in a while just to figure out a sticky point in a current plot, or to work out something for exercise, it can be refreshing. Mostly, I try to save my fight for the game.

  • hollylisle Sep 21, 2006 @ 9:35

    Since Lohengrin has stopped reading the thread, I’ll make this general. I don’t choose to be censored by money. I’m pretty sure that I do lose some readers because of my weblog, and some because most of my books are about something, rather than simply telling a story.

    I’m the person who has to live my life, though, and I would not be happy writing books that didn’t reach deeper than the surface story. (Ask me how I know this. Or just look at which books I haven’t included in my list, and figure it out.) I may never get rich doing this. God knows, I sure haven’t yet. There have been more than a few years where we would have qualified for government assistance, were I willing to accept anything from the government.

    I can either live my beliefs, or I can give lip service to them while pandering to an audience that doesn’t want to think, or is unwilling to have their beliefs challenged. My way is harder and almost certainly less profitable, but I sleep at night.

  • Jaye Patrick Sep 20, 2006 @ 23:00

    I don’t think I’ve ever stopped reading an author because of political or social affiliations; bad writing, yes.

    I don’t bring personal politics or religion into my reading of fiction either, just whether I enjoy it or not; whether the themes appeal to me, whether the plot and characters are engaging. American Psycho was really disturbing, but fascinating and I enjoyed it, for all it’s perversity.

    I loved, absolutely loved, Sympathy for the Devil and Minerva Wakes, but had a meh moment with the Secret Texts.

    The rants are researched, sourced and interesting; I may not agree every time, but should I toss your books aside because of geo-political disagreements? Nope. Debate and discussion are what makes us informed, and while those themes may make me uncomfortable, I’ll keep reading because they challenge my beliefs.

    I agree with Jim: Fiction — even fantasy — has GOT to be rooted in the way people behave, in the way they respond to problems as individuals and as a society.

    If writers don’t explore the world, what would there be to write about?

  • Jim Sep 21, 2006 @ 0:52

    Jaye,

    Thank you.

    I think that even Holly said that she had her issues with the Secret Texts because one of the characters was SO EVIL — and manipulative. The train wreck I suffered after that was almost as hard as Holly’s and I didn’t fully recover until about halfway through The Wreck of Heaven. But Holly carried me through — and I still believe Sympathy is one of the most important novels of the last fifty years. I just wish everyone did. 🙂

    Lohengrin,

    You have a right to your opinions. I think most of the people here agree with Holly — maybe not 100%, and maybe only to the level that she presents important suggestions that cannot be ignored. Her “rants” are not “politically correct,” perhaps. Unfortunately, most of the real world is not “politically correct,” and I’m with Holly in the minority that believe that Islamofascism is using the West’s “political correctness” against us as skillfully as a master swordsman yields his weapon. I agree with most of Holly’s positions that you call “apalling.”

    And where I disagree with her, you would probably find my opinions even less acceptable. I’ve suspected since …well, 9-12… that this won’t be solved until there are several radioactive holes in the surface of this planet, and I would MUCH prefer that they not be within the boundaries of the United States, God help us all.

  • Nicole Sep 20, 2006 @ 22:55

    I find it interesting the way people can associate an author’s personal beliefs with the books written when the books don’t have the “offensive” beliefs written in. It’s not something I understand. Yes others have the right to feel this way, but I am a lot less turned off by the author than the book itself.

    That said, I find it fascinating that you, Holly, can put contemorary issues into your fiction in ways that I wouldn’t have suspected. The depth to the stories is easy to see, but I would have guessed that you went inside yourself for the motivation rather than out into the world. I’ll have to start looking at current events in a new light now.

  • lohengrin Sep 20, 2006 @ 21:47

    And I’m already tired of arguing about this. Not going to check this thread anymore. No stamina for unpleasantness, and no self-control about starting things I can’t finish.

  • pugh7755 Sep 20, 2006 @ 19:07

    I disagree with lohengrin. I have read numerous books that have totally opposite points of view on my ideals. However, I do not say I’ll ever stop reading these authors’ work, because they do exactly what fiction is supposed to do. Invoke feelings, take us away from our mundane everyday life to see what is happening in someone else’s life (albeit, a fictional one.) If it abrades my beliefs, so what. IT’S FICTION.

    No one has the same exact beliefs as everyone else. That is why we are individuals. For authors to say to themselves, ‘I can’t write that. What will people think?’ they would be censoring themselves and in the end taking away a chance for me to delve into the lives of some poor soul who’s life is so much worse than mine that it leaves me feeling better about my own situation and beliefs.

    I am Pagan. However, I have read numerous Christian authors and have enjoyed their works completely. Do I agree with everything they believe? Absolutely not. But, I don’t condemn them, or say I will never buy any of their books simply because I don’t believe the same way.

    When I began my current project, I didn’t think about what people would think of me writing about a kidnapping, child molesting, serial killing, mentally ill, porthole jumping mad man. Because, to do so would censor my writing and possibly deprive someone of a good read (hopefully). If or when people have to opportunity to read my novel, I know not everyone will see it the same way. Some will hate it. Some will love it. Some will have no opinion one way or the other. However, I wrote the story I wanted to right. And yes, it does deal with everyday problems that not everyone will agree upon. For instance, it can be seen as a novel about the sad state of medical care for the mentally ill as well as the realization that our government puts weapons into the hands of those who wish to do us harm.

    In the end only one thing matters. We have told the story that we wanted to tell. It’s one less ‘maybe’ or ‘what if’ we have to deal with later.

    Write on Holly. Sink or swim, I’m with you to the end.

  • lohengrin Sep 20, 2006 @ 20:00

    I am a Buddhist. If I only read Buddhist authors, I’d have awfully little fiction reading to do. But there is a difference between authors who believe in things I do not, and authors whose political and philosophical positions I find APPALLING.

  • lohengrin Sep 20, 2006 @ 18:21

    Honestly? Knowing what I do about your political affiliations makes me less likely to buy your books on sight. Now I wait until a library has them and read them there first, because after the unpleasantness of Last Girl Dancing (several things in that novel struck very wrong chords with me, and I all but threw the book across the room in disgust) and this blog, I don’t trust you as much anymore. I trust you more than I trust Orson Scott Card, but I just flat out will NOT buy his books anymore, because I refuse to financially support, in any small way, such a vocal homophobe.

    So, sharpening your knives as it does, it is also not necessarily good business sense. Does my one little “vote” make any difference to your income? No, I imagine not. But it’s still one less consumer, one less person giving you good word of mouth (which I used to, and now don’t). And probably not just one–I know I am certainly not alone in refusing to buy any more OSC books.

  • Jim Sep 20, 2006 @ 17:47

    Holly,

    From the perspective of an aspiring writer, that may be the single most important thing you have ever written.

    Fiction — even fantasy — has GOT to be rooted in the way people behave, in the way they respond to problems as individuals and as a society. And few things stimulate more behavioural response than politics at all levels, from the backbiting office snipe to the (hypothetical) secretly tyrannical national leader controlled by the ultrawealthy.

    And the richer and broader the social background you borrow from, the better and richer the resulting fiction.

    That is the difference between threatening your characters with toothless paper tigers, and threatening them with real, ravenous beasts who go for their throats and force them to fight back and to walk away from their battles, scarred by stronger for the conflicts. And why even your most dispicable villians can be seen with some sympathy when you look at them through own eyes. (OK, I’ll discount Michael, and most of the Dragons, but even the more villanous Wolves had their moments of honor, and we can never forget Baanraak.)

    Thank you.

  • Monica Sep 20, 2006 @ 16:31

    That’s a really good idea, putting in a novel. I would have to write horror or fantasy though. Actually I wished I wrote horror or fantasy.

    I have been ranting overtime. It’s sapping my energy, my will to write. I rant because it’s either do that or become numb and shut. My demons affect me, affect every aspect of my writing career and make me angry and fearful.

    I’m not frightened of the Islamic horde. They are still far away and aren’t affecting my livelihood, my present choices. They aren’t rubbing my face in what they consider my inferiority. The faces outside my door are the ones that scare me. Yeah, I got rant galore, but I really get slammed for mine because my rant is a mirror nobody wants to see.

    Then again, unlike your situation those folks don’t read books by people like me anyway, so it really doesn’t matter.

  • hollylisle Sep 20, 2006 @ 12:12

    Rose—You’re asking good questions. C.S. Lewis used his religion as a theme while writing some pretty good fantasy. Mark Twain challenged the inequities of Christianity in his writing. There are a lot of writers who look at what doesn’t work in their religion while still firmly maintaining their faith, and there are some (me among them), who had to completely write off religion in order to find God. No one path works for everyone, but asking honest questions and not being afraid to find the answers will keep you on yours.

  • The English Rose Sep 20, 2006 @ 11:28

    Y’know, Holly, I love and hate reading your blog at the same time. Why? I learn so much. Yet. I keep seeing all these big, ugly flaws in my writing when I read your blog/articles. At least I’m not discouraged (much), eh? That said, I’m dying to know what inspired Secret Texts. I love DoW so far.

    And here’s a question… I try to find themes and things I really care about (ie, solving the world’s problems via fiction, whatever) but I’m a Christian and I always find answers in God/the Bible. It’s a good thing for my moral fiber/my life/my idea of life after death… but it makes for lousy writing. It’s not that I’m a sheep, though. I just can’t find things that I can’t find an “answer” to, which sort of bothers me and yet doesn’t (keeping in mind your article on Theme). Perhaps the whole religion thing IS what I need to find an answer to. I believe in mine, but I do wonder muchly about the Grand Scheme of Things. I dunno, I’m just prattling at this point.

  • michele_lang Sep 20, 2006 @ 11:10

    How cool is this, Holly!

    Thank you for sharing this deep, dirty secret 🙂 Because I only realized as I finished my most recent book that I do the same thing. I ask my hardest and biggest questions in my fiction, and while I don’t necessarily get answers as comprehensive as yours, the questions never fail to deepen the surface conflict.

    Wow…thanks again
    michele

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