The Writer’s Desk: When Messages Show Up

In my last post, I ranted (who, me? rant?) about writers who put a message before the story, how messages in books will come across more powerfully if they aren’t put there intentionally. How I hated people asking what message I put in Tower of Strength. (I didn’t! Yes, there are messages and themes, but they developed on their own.)

Then I got an interview form for my upcoming Band of Sisters, which will be featured in Covenant’s Book Worms newsletter. One question made me take a step back and rethink the whole message thing—had I done exactly what I professed to hate?

The question was something like: What do you hope readers will take away from this book?

That’s almost a backhanded way of asking what message you put into it, and I was scared, because I had an answer.

But then I realized that in a sense, it’s a different question altogether, because after a book is written, you can look back and see things differently than you did while writing it.

I realize that some people will still read Band of Sisters and assume I wrote it to “teach” readers what deployment is like. And then some readers might well think, “But she says she doesn’t write with a message in mind. Yeah, right.” I get that. But that’s not how the book came about, and it’s not why I wrote it.

Here’s how it happened: I wanted a fresh angle for an article aimed at a magazine that was focusing their July issue on the war and our soldiers. A good friend lived around the corner who I’d watched struggle with deployment over the previous year. I asked if I could interview her and some of her Army wife friends via e-mail about what deployment is like for the families at home.

These women poured out their hearts to me. I had pages and pages recounting their everyday lives, the struggles and heartbreak, the mind-numbing worry, the miracles, the misconceptions. I wept as I read and reread their interviews. How in the world could I do them justice in 800 words? I begged the editor for more room, and she gave me 1200. Still a paltry amount; I could barely brush the iceberg.

After the article ran, the words from these women wouldn’t leave me. Several weeks passed, and I knew I had to write more about the topic—if nothing else, to get it out of my system so I could focus on my next temple novel (that’s what I am—a historical novelist—right?). At first I considered pitching a longer piece to a different magazine. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized there might be a novel here. What if I threw several very different women into deployment and watched them struggle through it together?

No, no, no . . . I write historical novels about temples. Shake it off . . .

The idea wouldn’t be shaken off.

One evening, a scene popped into my head. I went home, wrote it, then brought it to my critique group, telling them that this was a lark, a scene I had to just write out, but I’d be returning to my temple stuff soon.

They told me in no uncertain terms to write the entire book.

So I did, and that scene is now about two thirds of way into it. My five main characters showed up very different from one another. With my hands on the keyboard, I watched them trying to keep their heads above water, turning to each other for help, asking the “veteran” of the group, Nora, for advice, since this was her third deployment.

So back to the big question: Did I go into the book with an agenda?

Some could argue that I did. To me, I simply felt compelled to portray a real picture of deployment. But I wasn’t trying to teach or preach. It was simply a subject that wouldn’t stop haunting me until I gave in and wrote about it. Now that the book is written and I can look at the whole, see what my characters went through and learned along the way, I have things I learned right along with them.

As a result, I can easily answer the original question: What do I want my readers to take away from this book?

I want women to give one another the benefit of the doubt. To step out of their comfort zones and be willing to support each other—to see that someone you might never have considered to be a kindred spirit could potentially be your best friend.

I want women to stop comparing themselves to one another, because inevitably, we compare ourselves on our worst days with someone else’s best. And it’d be great if readers closed the book thinking about the social masks we wear—and maybe be willing to drop a couple.

I hope the deployment parts got close to reflecting reality. I’ve had feedback from several women who have been through deployment saying I made them cry or that I “nailed it” even in the first three chapters that are on my website. Those comments bring me joy. (I’m such a sadist.)

And now that the entire book is done, I have to admit that I hope that after reading Band of Sisters, readers will understand, like I finally did, that having a spouse deployed is so much different than most of us assume. That maybe we can be more supportive and understanding of families in that situation.

Looking at that list, I suppose the big irony is that in the end, this book may have more messages than any of my others. But I didn’t plan it that way.

Which exactly is why I think that maybe, just maybe, it works.

Then again, readers will be the judge of that. I should find out if I succeeded in a couple of weeks after it gets into reader hands.

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14 Responses to The Writer’s Desk: When Messages Show Up

  1. Darlene says:

    No, you did it just right. The only right goal of fiction is to "tell it true" so that the reader really experiences the action of the book. It just so happens that a real experience through reading good fiction leads to those "goals" you decribed–the increase in empathy and understanding. But these are just a pleasant byproduct.

  2. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    This reminds me of people who ask if a writer really puts all the symbols in his/her stories on purpose. I always respond by saying that maybe the writers don’t put them in on purpose, but they leave them there on purpose. Two very different things.

  3. Can’t wait to read it!

  4. Darlene said it exactly write, and I love what Lisa said about symbols (messages) not necessarily being put there on purpose, but often left there on purpose. So true. I think sometimes the characters themselves guide the story in ways the writer simply can’t predict.

    So eager to read this one. With a box of kleenex on hand, of course.

  5. Melinda W. says:

    My husband got home from Afghanistan a year ago this month. He’s recovered from the deployment just fine. I’m still reeling from it, and I can honestly say that things are never going to be the same for me. While some few things are better, most of them are worse. I look forward to reading the book too. Other Army wives told me how hard it would be and I thought I was ready, but it’s the things you don’t see coming that blow you apart.

    It infuriates me that he’s just fine and I’m not. He got to leave his war in Afghanistan. Mine is still here.

  6. I’m looking forward to reading your book, Annette. It sounds amazing.

  7. Annette Lyon says:

    Wow, Melinda–thanks for commenting. It’s stories like yours that hit me in the gut every time.

    I’m seriously considering writing a novel about re-entry–the year AFTER deployment–because I know it has a boatload of challenges all its own. (The original friend I used for the article said I could do an entire trilogy about re-entry–I think she was only half kidding.) I hope [i]Band of Sisters[/i] sells well enough that they’ll let me do a sequel.

  8. Wm Morris says:

    How can you find the passion to write if you don’t have *some* sort of agenda? Now, of course, if your only agenda is to write a novel convincing everyone to your point of view, things are going to go wrong because you’ll be resisting or ignoring the alchemical properties of story-crafting. And perhaps theme or inspiration or obsession is better label than agenda.

    Still — it seems to me that there should be some sort of passion behind the writing. The driving passion behind Band of Sisters may be more raw and based in real life than for your historical novels, but the act of storytelling is an act of wanting to say, of wanting to find utterance for some *thing* whatever that may be.

  9. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    As always, it comes down to words and what they mean. I’ve been reading "agenda" as "propaganda" because Mormon writers tend to fear their work being labeled propaganda, specifically either for or against the church. William is correct, IMO, that writers must have passion for a particular take on the topic they approach. Sometimes that passion is a deep empathy for a person in a rough situation and a desire to promote that deep empathy in the audience. Annette obviously had that kind of passion going into writing her latest book. Passion isn’t proganda, but I don’t think "agenda" is its synonym either. I wish we’d drop using the word. Or maybe I wish we had a better rhetorical container for the idea we want to represent.

  10. I got into a rather crabby argument with a very good friend and mentor-figure about a year ago over whether a desire to show a certain kind of life experience and rouse empathy in the reader is also a kind of "agenda" — with me insisting that it was, and that it was therefore meaningless to condemn literature for being agenda-driven. I’ve calmed down since then, and realized that he and I were both saying similar things but using different language to do it in. (Maybe I was regressing to the literary/critical equivalent of rebellious teenage-hood, when sometimes we’re contrary just to [i]be[/i] contrary.)

    I do think that few if any authors write without any intention of causing change in the real world, even if that "change" is merely a temporarily changed emotional state on the part of the reader. (In fact, a temporarily changed emotional state is generally most of what we can hope to achieve as writers.)

    I think there may be some writers who can start out with a notion in mind of the message they want to communicate, then craft their story around that message — and do a good job of it and have a good story at the end. I say that because I’ve seen that different authors write in very different ways, and that a good deal of learning how to be a writer is learning what works and doesn’t work for us. Sometimes — as in the case Annette describes — we discover something about ourselves as writers that freaks us out, because it tells us something that contradicts something else that we thought was true about us.

    More often, I think the story and the message get born together, just as a child and its shadow are born together. The thing that makes us care about a particular story has something to do with what its characters go through that resonates deeply with us and makes us feel that there’s something *important*, worth our time and energy. Sometimes the message is relatively easy to spot, because it’s linked to something attention-grabbing about the plot or the characters, like… say… the fact the they’re women whose husbands are on deployment, or they’re a same-sex attracted teenager who also happens to be Mormon. (C’mon, you knew I’d work it in!) Other times it may be hidden more deeply. What’s the message of Lord of the Rings? I could (and have) spent many pages on this, but one place I think his passion about his story came from was showing the price that may have to be born for a selfless sacrifice on the part of a fairly ordinary… hobbit. It’s not as topical, perhaps, but it is — maybe — just as message-driven, if you want to put it that way.

    P.S. to Lisa: I’ve long been intrigued by the notion that etymologically, "agenda" means "things to be acted upon" (if my rusty Latin is correct). I don’t know if that makes it easier to stand the notion of literature having agendas or not…

  11. Melinda W. says:

    [quote]Sometimes that passion is a deep empathy for a person in a rough situation and a desire to promote that deep empathy in the audience.[/quote]

    Well said. I believe that’s what I’ve been able to do with my novel. The people who have read my draft have told me it’s a good story too, which I believe was Jonathan Langford’s point. I did want to teach my readers some empathy for a misunderstood group of people, but I wanted the story to teach the empathy, rather than lecturing or moralizing or (heaven forbid) emotionally manipulating my readers.

  12. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Since this discussion is hinging a bit on word usage, I’d like to voice my slow-in-coming embrace of the word "manipulate." It used to offend me when academic critic types spoke of a writer manipulating an audience. But really that’s what we do. A few black lines on paper or on a screen and a person who was feeling one thing is suddenly feeling another, specifically because of our construct of words. Fascinating. Good writers manipulate readers–at least in that sense.

    Manipulation is bad, I think, when the prompt to action is guilt-based, or based in some other negative emotion that may not be justly related. Or when it feels accusatory toward the audience. (Consider some of the TV crime dramas which preach that if the public did good-X then bad-Y wouldn’t happen.) Readers shouldn’t be lectured to, as Melinda points out, but invited to consider through the exploratory manipulations of a capable writer.

  13. Wm Morris says:

    Well, we may manipulate, but at least we don’t use music to do so unlike those filmmakers with their swelling strings. <wink>

  14. Melissa J Cunningham says:

    I can’t wait to read the story. I have four nephews in the military and I see what their wives and families go through being alone for so long. It’s tough. Thank you for not ignoring your inspiration.

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