Response to the Novel Ninja– Stories are about Things

By Mead Schaeffer (artist) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

{EDIT:  Okay, turns out I misread some things over on Novel Ninja’s site.  

We had a lengthy discussion in the comments, and I made some mistakes. But… turns out, we actually agree on many things.  Like, everything. Except I totally misconstrued what the man had to say.  I think I got hung up on some words… and stuff.   For example, I totally missed the last three paragraphs (!!) of his post. So you don’t have to click through… I will just quote it here.

My advice for you is to focus on a story. If you’ve got a message in there, great! Just make certain that it stems from the story, and not the other way around. Don’t write by thinking “Gosh, I hope this wins this particular award” or “Hey, I bet this will be a great book for students to study!” Awards won’t get you sales except with those who live by awards. Most people don’t. I’ve worked with authors who have one different awards, and I’ve rarely seen — even at conferences and conventions — that having that badge on your cover means diddly to the people actually buying it.

The best award you can possibly get comes when one friend hands your book to another and says “You’ll like this. It’s great.” It’s one of the best feelings in the world, right up there with cute little animals and watching your firstborn learn to walk.

Remember, there are nearly 10,000 books published every single day. Focus on reaching your intended audience, and not the awards banquet. And never be concerned with following someone else’s checklist for what causes you should and should not showcase in your fiction. Write the story you want to tell. Write the story that your audience wants to read.

EDIT note: I bolded where he had italics so there’s stress consistency. My original post is as follows (and the comments) are as per the original. }

To make sense of this post, read this link first, from the Novel Ninja. Ironically, there are plenty of things that I agree with him in the article, but this article is about my disagreement. I think if we had a general clarification in terms, we would find we actually agree, for the most part. But these points needs to be made.  So here goes somthing.

Sure, sure, the polemic screed is not entertaining. But can you seriously say that tales involving morality or love or honor are not entertaining? Really? People still read Shakespeare to be entertained. Youth fiction, those rolicking tales involving pirates, exotic locales and buried treasure aren’t amoral romps through a child’s imagination. Heck, even South Park is about something. Sure, they make fun of it, but it’s not exactly news that they have an agenda. I hear they have wild success in the entertainment world. Why is it that Duck Dynasty is biggest thing since the Beatles? That’s a show that’s about something, pointed and specific. I admit, those are not things I would call political. Then again, A&E would. “What side you are on” also determines what you mean by political. That is the most irritating of all.

I think there is a difference between those stories that are about reality, and those stories that are about ideas that have to be explained. Shakespeare was all about the realities of his time. Yet those realities were so universal we still love the stories, even for what they say. He doesn’t have to tell us what those realities are. He can just show us. We KNOW what he means by honor. We know what he means by love. But when the author has to explain what he means by gender (or sex) then we know that it’s no longer a story but a dissertation.

The New Wave has veered well off the path of connection to it’s readers. It has forged ahead into experimental psychology and recreating society from reality on up. They have mistaken reality for perception. Unfortunately, the whole movement missed cues from Utopia (Thomas More) who accompanied his astute analysis with ribald humor. That’s why I forgive Kurt Vonnegut his crushing nihilism– at least he was entertaining by it, and gave us glimmers of light in darkness. Though he hated the world, he saw hope in the oddities of men.

Trying to figure stuff out is hard work, so one should be rewarded for making an effort. This is pretty basic, and a rule no writer should ever break, no matter what they are writing. Yes, even if it is a dissertation!  Furthermore, a lot of them aren’t very good at explaining what they mean in novelistic form. They can hardly be faulted, because the novel was not designed for this kind of effort. The novel gives us a story window into the life of an individual, or an individual’s picture of a world. Or at it’s broadest, a limited view on the actions of a group through the progression of conflict.

Kids love fairy stories, comic books, myths, call them what you like. They are more real than those stories you complain about, because they are metaphors and symbols to tell the tale of good vs evil. You can’t really have a story without that conflict in some form.  The further we get away from that, the less entertaining, the less exciting they are.

They are the same thing that you dismiss as “morality plays”,only timelessly well-told. Dumb plays were the most popular form of entertainment for over 1000 years, the poor benighted fools. They are the origins of all theater, opera, and the musical. They represent how the theatrical tradition survived through the fall of Rome, and well beyond. The parable is the most pure form of entertainment –and education– that human beings have. The problem is, the trend is to ignore the truism that the story is not compatible with the dissertation. Frankly, I’m glad it isn’t. Learning would be a lot less fun otherwise, and width and breadth of child’s stories would be ponderous and dull.

But writers and artists need to be put on notice that dissertations do not produce art, and never will.  I’m sold on the idea that stories, well told, are art. Well beloved stories  still count, no matter how dogeared and trite. The language may be simple, the prose might be more to the taste of a child than a language professor, but it’s not his call to arbitrarily declare what art is.  Art touches humanity, not the ivory tower.

Utagawa Kuniyoshi [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In the interests of Internet Fellowship, and as a peace offering, I proffer this. Yep, he is a pirate. My guess is he’s probably ronin by background, thus both a pirate AND a ninja.  😉 Enjoy!

PS. I think this problem actually goes back to the Dada and Surrealist movements, and how they started pushing art and literature beyond the limits of thier previous aims.  Another article for the list.

EDIT 3: We had a very long and very pleasant conversation. It’s one way to make new friends…  🙂


5 thoughts on “Response to the Novel Ninja– Stories are about Things

  1. No worries! I’m more concerned about you confusing ronin and ninjas. 😉

    You did miss a bit of the point, though. As I said, “If you’ve got a message in there, great! Just make certain that it stems from the story, and not the other way around.”

    I studied morality plays in college (Christendom, to be exact), and while I keep it out of the Novel Ninja blog I’m a veritable bastion of traditional Catholicism and medievalism. However, I find morality plays boring, and I’m not the only one. There are plenty of examples of moral messages in medieval and early-Renaissance fiction, and the best ones are the ones with an interesting narrative. I recommend Tolkien’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight for one (usually found in a book with an actual morality play, Pearl, which is one of the few worth reading but it still made my eyes glaze over).

    A bit of an exception can be found in Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is essentially little more a series of moral scenes. However, part of the reason it’s endured is the framing device — the growth of the character as well as the amazing descriptions of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, all using devices and motifs from Dante’s century. (You lose a LOT of depth if you don’t have at least a passing knowledge of 13th century European cosmology. It’s fascinating stuff.)

    So the issue is not, as you claimed, that tales involving morality or love are bad. Far from it! (Not to mention that I’m one of those guys who actually likes a good chick flick. I think I’ve got one or two recommended on my blog, if you scroll back through the archive. I also keep meaning to post something about Pride and Prejudice and the romance genre.) What I’m talking about in that post is the idea that if you specifically set out to champion a cause first and foremost, rather than tell a good story first and let your favorite topics come along for the ride, then your story usually winds up being boring.

    The blog-world blowup that triggered this post was specifically because one side was arguing that there should be a checklist in favor of their favorite causes. The other side said that the story should come first and you should write what YOU want to write, not what some group of reviewers, bloggers, or academics say must be covered. I just chose to focus on the idea that the story, as always, should come first.

    You mentioned fairy tales; have you read “On Fairy Stories” by Tolkien? In it, he talks about what makes a true fairy tale, and one of the things he notes is that the best ones are about the adventures, because they refresh our minds for ordinary life. It echoes an earlier examination of the same topic, by Chesterton, who noted that in Fairyland, you don’t always seek to explain things; you seek to wonder at the world. The rivers, he says, run with wine to remind ourselves for one wild moment that they actually run with water. And if what a witch says is contradicted by stuffy old scientists, that’s fine — the witch makes for a better story.

    A last example: I’m held on retainer by Chesterton Press, a small publisher specializing in Catholic fiction. The owners and I both agree on this point, that any book must be a good book first; if we can massage a manuscript to bring out a Catholic message, great! If we have to rewrite it to put something in there that doesn’t NEED to be in there for the sake of the plot, then that’s going to wind up being a bad book. And Chesterton Press simply can’t afford to publish duds.

    Does that clarify things for you?

    1. Truthfully, I figured we must agree somewhere due to other things you said… and I am a HUGE fan of Chesterton. Somehow I totally missed that bit. *facepalm* Guess I should read more slowly from now on. As to my ignorance of the Medieval Japanese cultural institutions– mea maxima culpa. I used to know better. (insert a long rant about the SCA here.) Then I got obsessed with other things. There is still a lot that I think I know that I don’t actually know that I haven’t unearthed and corrected yet. It’s an embarrassingly slow process!

      1. Yes, I quickly saw that you must have missed part of the concluding paragraphs, but you were very nice about it.

        If you click here, you can see my own fondness for Chesterton:

        And as for the Japanese stuff, a ronin is a member of the samurai class who is without a lord — either because he is dismissed, or because his lord is dead with no heir (often assumed to be the samurai’s fault, since he was expected to die in his lord’s defense and such men rarely died of natural causes without an heir). Either way, it is a disgraceful position, and many would choose suicide instead. Technically, a ronin can become a ninja, but to do so he would have to turn his back on all that made him a samurai in the first place, and therefore he would not be both ronin and ninja.

        (And for additional trivia: “ronin” is sometimes used as a synonym in modern Japan for “unemployed,” though there’s more nuance to it than in English.)

        As for me, I don’t call my blog and editing business “Novel Ninja” because I like ninjas. I use it as a reference to how editors are supposed to be in the shadows relative to the author, making the author look good through covert action. It’s an evocative name, catches attention, and helps keep people aware of me.

        Also, I happen to like ninjas. 🙂

      2. I also thought it was a sidelong reference to “Ninja Words” which is my favorite way to quickly search words that stymie the spellcheck.

        Also, pirates. It’s a personality thing. I do stealth like William the SIlent. 🙂 Then there’s the swashbuckling– so maybe I’m more more of a privateer.

        I’m not sure my OCD could keep me current on the fashion insanity that was going on in medieval Japan. Though I admit, the layered look with all the colors were gorgeous. The black teeth were not, though.

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