The following is a guest post by Luc Reid who recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the research for his upcoming novel “The Town at World’s End” — a story about a struggling town, based on real strategies for fighting climate change.
Balancing an engaging and entertaining story with Luc’s stated goal of laying out a clear and practical path for actual communities to follow is no easy task. I asked him to talk about the challenges of undertaking such a project and he was kind enough to write the insightful post below.
Really? A Novel With a Message?
By Luc Reid
Telling stories with an ulterior motive is not a well-respected activity. Samuel Goldwyn, then head of MGM Studios, famously told his producers “If you want to send a message, use Western Union,” and the sentiment carries over into fiction–with good reason. Human beings love stories by nature, but we aren’t naturally enthusiastic about being lectured to.
Yet every once in a while, a novel with a message works, or even becomes a classic of literature, for instance George Orwell’s 1984 or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Both of these books championed ideas and created debate and interest in their topics.
Other non-fiction-in-novel-form books, by contrast, have succeeded despite having very questionable literary value. Psychologist B. F. Skinner created a fictional vision of an intentional community in his novel Walden Two, which was powerfully influential and even inspired groups to go out and do their best to make his vision come true. That book remains a top seller, and yet as a story it falls somewhere between “Where’s the conflict?” and “Don’t quit your day job.”
Other writers have had similar story-challenged successes, like Ernst Callenbach’s Ecotopia and Dr. Eliyahu M. Goldratt’s novel of manufacturing efficiency measures, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement–which as of this writing ranks at #1,269 on Amazon out of all books, despite having been written in 1984 and having no real characters to speak of.
These successes may seem surprising or contradictory of basic common sense about writing, but I think they teach us the same lesson as The DaVinci Code, Twilight, Slaughterhouse Five, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, The Lord of the Rings, 50 Shades of Gray, or Ulysses: that success for a novel isn’t a measure of a single, universal characteristic, or even a measure of how certain universal characteristics work together. Instead, the question is to what extent the novel hits a nerve or fills a need. That need can be romance, escape, enlightenment, intellectual engagement, wish fulfillment, or a way to increase plant productivity by 18%–it just has to be some meaningful and widespread desire.
I worry about my current project, a novel called The Town at World’s End, for which I’m currently running a Kickstarter campaign you can get to through www.TheTownAtWorldsEnd.com . It’s a novel about solving climate change on the community level, about how one struggling town transforms to stop contributing to the problem and build resilience. The thing is, climate change is an issue people tend to avoid if they possibly can. The novel paints a picture of a way of living that’s rewarding and sustainable, and I think the specifics of that lifestyle are very attractive and would enrich people’s lives–but will readers feel the same? Will people seek the book out because they want to find something positive and motivating about climate change, or avoid it because the topic is usually so depressing?
So far, having just launched the campaign the other day, the signs are very tentatively positive. I have a small number of backers, one of whom has even claimed one of the biggest rewards, the chance to name a city and a climate-related disaster that destroys that city.
Even apart from its climate change-related advantages, I intend for this to be a hell of a novel, and I have enough successful fiction writing experience that the prospects look good for that. Still, we’ll have to see. Regardless of whether you’re writing a standard epic fantasy novel or something unusual and possibly ill-advised, like my project, there are variables both of how strong the need is for what you’re providing and how well you speak to those who have that need. Good luck with your next story or book–and wish me luck with mine!