Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Should You Avoid Topical Issues in Your Writing?

By Paul Anthony Shortt, @PAShortt

Part of the How They Do It Series

Writers write because we have something to say--be it a poignant message, social commentary, or just to tell a good tale, our words often carry a lot of weight. But where's the line between writing about the world and preaching about an issue? I'm pleased to welcome long-time friend of the site, Paul Anthony Shortt, back today to share some thoughts on writing about topical issues.

A child at heart who turned to writing and roleplaying games when there simply weren't enough action figures to play out the stories he wanted, Paul Anthony Shortt has been writing all his life.

He believes in magic and monsters. In ghosts and fairies. The creatures that lurk under the bed and inside the closet. The things that live in the dark, and the heroes who stand against them. Above all, he believes that stories have the power to change the world, and the most important stories are the ones which show that monsters can be beaten.

He lives in Ireland with his wife Jen and their dogs, Pepper and Jasper. Their first child, Conor William Henry Shortt, was born on July 11th, 2011. He passed away three days later, but brought love and joy into their lives and those of their friends. The following year, Jen gave birth to twins, Amy and Erica. Their fourth child, Olivia, was born in January, 2014.

Paul's work includes the Memory Wars Trilogy and the Lady Raven Series. His short fiction has appeared in the Amazon #1 bestselling anthology, Sojourn Volume 2.

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Take it away Paul...

They say art imitates life. And true, many classics of literature are greatly influenced by the society and times of the author. It can be very tempting to pass social commentary through our work, but as with any creative decision, it’s important to make sure it’s done for the right reasons.

While I avoided many topical issues of the day in The Memory Wars Trilogy, my next series, Lady Raven, was explicitly intended to bring feminist subject matter into the forefront of my work. Cora’s world is ruled by strict protocols for women, and the story depends on her lack of rights for the instigating events that bring her out of her normal world to the path of adventure. Much of her own development lies in overcoming the assumptions others have about her, due to her gender. I wanted to give my own take on what a positive female protagonist could be.

I also have a new project, an e-serial called Origin. The idea for this first came to me when I decided to work out what would be an eventual, logical, conclusion to the question “Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?” It’s a world where superheroes began killing supervillains, and once they dealt with all of them, turned to applying this same logic to other problems, eventually controlling the world with harsh, strictly enforced laws designed to discouraged and pre-emptively deter criminal behavior. As superior individuals who had been entrusted with utmost responsibility and authority by the people they protected, superheroes are a natural heightened representation of our own authority figures, from police to politicians.

We often feel helpless, seeing negative things in the world. As writers, one of the things we can do is hold up something in our work for all to see, and frame it as positive, negative, or somewhere in between. We should take care, however. As much as bringing hot topics into our work can be a good thing, it can also backfire drastically.

Reasons To Avoid Topical Issues:

1. It can seem like a cheap cash-in.

When taking inspiration from actual events, particularly tragedies, the absolute worst thing you can do is to include similar themes in order to take advantage. The second-worst thing you can do is to seem like this why you’re doing it. Whatever you write, keep it genuine and keep it relevant to your story. The absolute best-case scenario if people think you’re trying to cash-in on other people’s suffering is they won’t buy your book. But most likely, you’ll be digitally pilloried and burned on the fires of the internet. If you’re not completely certain you can handle the issue without coming across like this, leave it and move on to something else. Ask around, see what other authors are doing, have people whose opinion you can trust to be honest look over your work. Most of all, treat the topic with respect and compassion.

2. It can date your work.

SFF author Kameron Hurley tweeted a little while ago that the difficulty in writing near-future books was trying to keep ahead of the dystopia. She was referring to a new, privatized city being developed in Africa to “arrest the ocean's encroachment,” but which is rumored to be intended as a haven for the rich to separate themselves from the lower-classes and the effects of climate change. Sounds just like something from a dystopian novel, doesn’t it? What we once thought of as a horrifying vision of the future is rapidly becoming closer and closer to reality.

So you have to decide for yourself if you’re okay with your work gradually going from a warning about the possible extremes of certain injustices, to a commentary on how things are right now, not to mention the possibility that things will one day get even worse, and your work is left seen through a “we wish we had it that good” lens. On the other side, situations can improve, and the social commentary in your work might no longer be relevant. Take Alan Moore’s iconic Watchmen, for example. It was written in a time when the threat of nuclear annihilation was considered very real. It’s less so, now, and for decades Russia was revealed to be far weaker than was believed during the Cold War. So all those “red scare” stories can seem a little naive in hindsight.

Reasons To Include Topical Issues:

1. It adds relevance and gravitas to your work

Particularly if you’re a speculative fiction author like myself, there’s always the risk someone might look down on your work as being a bit shallow or too “pop fiction.” But science fiction and fantasy have a long-standing tradition of being used to make difficult subject matter more accessible to people. This is a tradition worth continuing, and when you allow yourself to deal with such subjects, your work becomes that much more important.

I aim to write fun adventure stories where the villains are relatively clear and the heroes eventually triumph. But the core of my work is to show that “monsters can be beaten”, as my website’s tagline goes. There’s a message to my books, and that allows them to stand out from the crowd. It means that readers can see what I’m about and decide if they want to invest in me as an author. While you don’t want to be too commercial about touchy subjects, it’s important to consider how a given issue will relate to your author brand. If it’s a natural fit and something you feel passion for, go for it.

2. It’s a good thing to do

The fact is that artists have provided social commentary throughout history. And we don’t do it because it’ll make us a quick buck. We do it because we feel compelled to speak out against the things we see as injustices. In today’s world, anyone can reach out to the internet and speak their mind. And historically the loudest voices are the ones trying to keep others down. If we feel the desire to speak out against something, we have a responsibility to do it to the best of our ability. As I said in the point above, speculative fiction is often used to bring issues to light that people would otherwise shy away from. Racism, torture, sexism, apartheid, transphobia, environmental concerns, all of these have been tackled in science fiction and fantasy. Whatever your chosen genre, there is power within your words to educate and be heard. Use it wisely.

About Origin

Will Thorne lives an obedient life. He goes to work to support his mother and brother. He follows the law. He reports dissident behavior. He looks the other way when a police officer brutally subdues a suspect. It's easy for someone like him to get by in a world controlled by the men and women who watch over the people. The ones with the powers. The ones who once wore masks.

But Will's obedience is put to the test when his brother's criminal activities finally catch up to him. After a terrible accident, Will finds himself imbued with unique powers of his own, and conscripted into the ranks of the Power and Authority Department.

Finding himself on the other side of the protests and barricades, using his superhuman abilities against ordinary people desperate for freedom, how far can Will push the limits of his conscience? Will he become another part of the oppressive forces that rule the world? Or will he find the strength within himself to rise against his superhuman masters, and show the world what a real hero can do?

Origin will be released in e-serial format, starting on January 31st, initially through Wattpad, then through Amazon.


  1. Thanks for the great tips! I love putting topical issues in my stories. My characters all tend to be as deeply political as I am lol, But your right that we have to be careful that the story stands on its own so it doesn't just read as a lecture. One of the ways I like to do this is to give my heroes and their cause flaws. Lots of them.

  2. Excellent advice. I like books that tackle issues, especially from both sides. Those types of books really make me think.

  3. Another blog to save and pass along to other writers! Thanks.