Rising Above the Noise: Writing Social/Political Commentary

We’re all painfully aware of the inexhaustible barrage of social and political commentary these days, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and social media buzzing like starved flies around a cesspool of absurd political chaos and indefensible partisan posturing. Sometimes you just want to get away from it all and write about gumdrop fairies and unicorns dancing on rainbows, and while that’s perfectly fine, that’s not the objective here today.

You may ask yourself, “why bother?” If social or political writing consisted solely of punditry and opinion pieces, I’d be right there with you. Unless you are bringing something completely revolutionary to the table, pursuing straight commentary at this point will all but guarantee you’ll be lost in the shuffle. Fiction with a political or social bent, however, allows plenty of space to say your piece and offer new angles on situations most assume have been wholly explored. A special piece of art can change the world, and the most impactful art tends to draw from the world around us. Luckily, writers have numerous methods that can stir readers’ consciousness without preaching or force-feeding a set of preconfigured ideals.

We’ve all read something that feels less like a story or conversation and becomes a diatribe that strikes the wrong nerve and sets an uncomfortable tone. Once a reader reaches that point, there’s rarely any turning back. The one major exception here is satire. That said, satire is one of the most difficult genres to get right, but the payoff is by far the most rewarding. If you’ve got a satirical piece materializing, make sure you go back and re-read Jonathan Swift’s legendary “A Modest Proposal” one more time to ensure your grasp of the form is firm. Swift’s convictions are steadfast, but instead of pounding his readers over the head in an attempt to force compassion, he challenges us to reckon with a ludicrous darkness and find our own way to the message.

One of the biggest challenges to writing a timely commentary is that it can come with a giant expiration date, but using allegory avoids a head-on collision with overt hot topics. Like satire, allegory can be hard to pull off without irony or being too obvious, but again, you can weave a very rewarding tale with enough work and the right vision. Think of allegory as a metaphorical narrative, in which you tell the story as directly or indirectly as you like, but masking the actual details with characters, settings, and events that don’t have any clear correlation with the underlying narrative. For the most basic examples, think Aesop’s Fables. For something that goes a little deeper, try George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

For a less restrictive foray, take a stab at genre fiction. I know science fiction and fantasy (SFF) have long been the poster children for escapism, often denounced as being universally unimportant or just for kids, but just in case you were unaware, people who make these sweeping judgments could not be more wrong. Several classic novels are now categorized as literary fiction, even though they are SFF: 1984, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Farenheit 451 are just the tip of the iceberg. In more recent years, “speculative fiction” has risen to prominence as a division of SFF that leans more socially conscious and forward thinking, with writers like N.K. Jemisin, Jeff Vandermeer, Nnedi Okorafor, and many others forging a strong path.

With SFF, you can write direct representations of reality filtered through alien characters or situations, and while your audience will (hopefully) pick up what you’re throwing down, you won’t be stuffing it down their throats, and they’ll be all the happier for it.
If this style of genre fiction simply doesn’t suit you, just extract your subject and inject it into an unexpected place. This way you have more freedom than you would within an allegory, but you still have an interesting structure to build on. If you have a raging diatribe about the current administration, shift to a setting with lower or considerably different stakes, like a family owned theme park, a corner store, underground snake wrestling club, or whatever you see fit.
Whichever direction you take with your sociopolitical work, begin with a clear, original, truthful stance. Write with honesty and integrity, respect your readers’ intelligence, and don’t tell them what to think—show them what happens when characters think in certain ways.

Author Spotlight: Jeff Wheeler by Amanda Wayne

Jeff Wheeler is a Wall Street Journal bestselling author of several fantasy novels. Among them are the Kingfountain and Muirwood series. His books are a blend of legend, history, and theology. He worked for many years at Intel before deciding to pursue his writing career fulltime. After dozens of rejections from traditional publishing houses, he opted to self-publish his books. This captured the attention of 47North, an Amazon publishing house. Four years after his early retirement from the IT world, Jeff Wheeler is quickly becoming a force in the literary world. He revived Deep Magic, a clean fantasy e-zine, to give writers in the subgenre a place to submit their works. Jeff’s unorthodox rise from rejection to success is an example to writers of how to overcome adversity and forging their own path to become a bestselling author. He is a devoted husband and father and a devout member of his LDS congregation. Jeff was kind enough to answer some questions for us today! (No spoilers!)

 

TLW: One of the many things I admire about your fantasy novels is the way in which you portray women. Your ladies are more Buffy than the “damsel in distress” trope. You take care to avoid writing female characters as powerless victims in a largely patriarchal society. Even your female villains are strong and powerful. What made you decide to go this much more female empowering route?

JW: It probably started with Princess Leia. I was in elementary school when the first Star Wars film came out; I still remember seeing it in the theater, and it made a huge impression on me. I grew up with mostly brothers, but then my mom had two girls and both were powerful (they needed to be when so outnumbered by us!) I’ve never liked writing stereotypes, so I’m not deliberately trying to make one sex stronger or weaker than the other. What I want is for my characters to feel realistic and human. I married a very strong woman, and she’s been an inspiration to me since we knew each other as teenagers. When I create characters, I want them to feel like real people. Many of them are actually inspired by real people—especially the girls.

 

You manage to marry historical fiction, Arthurian legend, and an undercurrent of theology into a fantasy series. This is quite an accomplishment. What made you think that a recreation of Richard III’s timeline into your fantasy world could work? How did you meld the genres so seamlessly?

I’ve always had a love of history and a love of fantasy, and it’s very natural for me to blend them together. I did my master’s thesis on an aspect of Richard III and have read many books and documents about that era. It’s part of my personal history, too—one of my ancestors died fighting in the same battle that killed Richard III. Like so many creative people, I often get my inspiration by mashing together ideas to form something new. I know a lot about the War of the Roses and thought that the setting would be an interesting era to write in. I mixed in some Arthurian legends and a trip to Yosemite, and voilà!

 

 

On the subject of theology, the Fountain magic has been compared to The Force. The Virtus concept is Roman based, but also carries some connotations of the Jedi code of honor. Your protagonists are self-sacrificing and honorable almost to a fault. In order to create tension, their adherence to their faith and their sense of nobility is constantly being tested. Were you ever tempted to have one of them fail their oaths and be destroyed by it?

Most people are inspired by inspiring stories. It sells a lot of Chicken Soup for the Soul books! There are so many examples in the world today of people who let others down or about those who are driven by greed and self-interest. I’m not interested in telling those kinds of stories. What I’ve always loved are those examples of people who gave it all for a higher cause. Those are the people I admire. Will I ever write a story about someone who doesn’t live up to that ideal? You never know. I like to surprise my readers.

 

One of the most poignant themes in your novels is that of the choice between free will and destiny. Did you find, in your research, that stories in our own history seem to repeat? Are we doomed to relive them until we learn from our mistakes?

It’s amazing to me how much history repeats itself. Take the Oath Maidens, for example, from the second half of the Kingfountain series. After coming up with that idea, I began to look for examples of more ‘Shield Maidens of Rohan’ (a nod to Tolkien) in history. I found so many. Yes, sometimes I think we are doomed to repeat mistakes if we don’t learn from them, but I also believe that every individual is capable of getting out of their cycle and doing better. History proves that is possible, too. But it’s always hard and many don’t try.

 

Your novels are in the subgenre of clean fantasy. The violence, while overt and necessary, is much more muted than in other literature. The human interactions are sweet and chaste. While there are some hints in your books of people engaging in activities that are unbecoming, your main characters are never put in positions that are untoward. Is it difficult to write in this genre and not fall into the modern trend of gory, explicit violence and oversexualization?

Let me put it this way: I think it is more difficult to write without those things than it is to include them. It’s easy to rely on the sensational or the sordid for its shock value. For years I worried that the audience for “clean fantasy” was shrinking and that no one would want to read the kind of stories I was interested in telling. But I made a commitment to myself and my family and God that I would write counter to the trend because I believe in it so strongly. It’s what motivated me to love the genre to begin with. When I started having success with my Muirwood books, it proved to myself (and my publisher) that the market for cleaner fare was ready for a change. It’s not a small niche, either. As a result of the success of my books, I re-started my old e-zine, Deep Magic, to encourage and provide a venue for other authors who share similar values and a market for readers who want more. I think the pendulum swung too far toward the darker fare. It’s gratifying seeing more and more family friendly fantasy in the market these days.

 

On the subject of writing as a craft, you managed to write three whole novels in six months. NaNoWriMo is considered an extreme, even insane, challenge for authors. Writing and editing three books in such a short time is incredible! You quit a successful IT career to become a fulltime author, but how did you stay motivated? What helped you keep writing?

I have the best job in the world—for me. Even when I was in school, I dreamed of being a fulltime author someday. I’m also grateful that I was given the chance to do what I love. Like with any job, it takes a certain amount of self-discipline not to be distracted by social media, cat videos, or the like and to knuckle down and get to work. But I love what I do and it’s not hard to stay motivated. I have a wife and five kids to support, after all! While I don’t miss the cubicle life, I’m grateful for all that I learned working for Intel. Some of it has even inspired my writing.

 

Do you have any advice for authors who are still trying to get a foot in the door?

Persistence and practice. I’ve studied the lives of successful people from all disciplines and the one thing they all have in common in uncommon persistence. That’s especially true in a field where there is so much rejection. I had 42 agents tell me no. I still don’t have an agent. But I refused to quit. What I didn’t realize was that my publisher hadn’t even been born yet. Timing is everything. And about practice, I heard from Terry Brooks (the man who inspired me to write), who attributed the quote to Stephen King, that after you’ve written your first million words, then you’re ready to start being an author. A million of anything is a lot. So practice. And keep practicing.

 

You have nothing but praise for your developmental editor. Many authors don’t know what developmental editors are or how they can help. Why did you decide that the Whispers of Mirrowen books needed a structural edit? What have you learned about the process that you can share with our readers?

I didn’t even realize that developmental editors existed until I landed my first publishing deal. My publisher, 47North, assigned a dev editor to work with me on the Mirrowen series. They didn’t do that with Muirwood because it was already on the market and already doing quite well with readers! So they re-packaged it, did some general grammatical fixing, and then recorded the audio and boom, it was ready. But I’ve found having a dev editor to be an incredibly beneficial part of my writing process. If I had known what they were and what they did, I would have used them back when I started. Even when I self-publish books, I use my team. Their input is incredibly valuable to me.

 

You went from a dedicated cubicle professional to a WSJ bestseller in just a few short years. How does it feel to be such a successful author and do you have any words of wisdom to pass along to writers hoping for success like yours?

Sometimes I do pinch myself to make sure it’s not all a dream. But to be honest, it feels very normal now. I try to foster an attitude of gratitude and appreciation every single day. It is an enormous blessing to do for a living what you love, and I certainly haven’t gotten tired of it at all. It’s a privilege having fans, impacting them in some small way, and an honor hearing from them. I try to be responsive because I remember what it felt like to hear back from authors I admired. Back in the day  you had to mail them letters! That’s one of the reasons I said yes to this interview.

 

You just revealed that you are halfway through writing a new series. What can we expect from this new series? Can you give us any hints?

I never do spoilers! The pre-order page is live along with the stunning cover art for STORM GLASS. This series will be longer than my normal ones (5 books instead of the usual 3) and will feature two main characters who see the world and the plot from very different points of view. Both characters are fun to write and sometimes I struggle as to which POV I want to focus on next. The setting will be sort of Dickensian. That’s it. No more teasers!