Some Thoughts On A Writer’s Intentions

Recently some Twitter folk discussed fiction that has a moral. It started with Theri Pickens telling Daniel José Older that she’d love to see a story about people’s failure to apologise for racism or the “nopology” or “fauxpology” as it’s been dubbed. She said she could “teach the hell out of that”. I then asked Daniel Older if he ever writes “stories that way? Starting with a moral?”

I asked because I have tried to do so and I have always failed. I wanted to know how Daniel had managed to do it.

I also asked because I write YA, and like most of us who write children’s or YA, the request to produce moral, uplifting fiction is frequent.1 I often wonder how many authors of adult fiction are asked what the moral of their stories are and whether it teaches the “correct” lessons.2 My suspicion is that very few of them have to deal with that particular set of questions.3

The discussion on Twitter swiftly went off in the direction of political writing and how there’s some wonderful moral and political writing, that not all of it is didactic and dry. All very true.4 But it left behind the discussion about a writer’s intentions. Which was what I wanted to talk about because, as ever, the process of writing fascinates me. I continued that discussion with Tayari Jones as we both agreed that it’s impossible to deduce a writer’s intentions from the published text.5

Readers6 often assume that they know what a writer’s intentions were. But unless they’ve shared those intentions—In this book I intend to teach that one should only marry for love. Regards, Jane Austen7—do we really?

I recently finished Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s brilliant Americanah which is very much a book about race and how it plays out differently in the USA and Nigeria (and the UK). It is a profoundly political and moral book. However, I have no idea if that is what Adichie intended. It’s clear watching her wonderful TED talks and reading interviews with her, that she thinks about all of those issues a great deal, but that is not the same thing as sitting down, and intending to write a book about race and politics and justice.

When you publish a novel the question you are asked most often is some variant of “Where did your novel come from?” or “How did you get the idea?” In response we writers tell origin stories for our novels. Sometimes they are not entirely true.

The origin stories I give for mine change as I realise more about them from other people’s reactions. Sometimes I think I don’t understand my novels until after they’ve gone through multiple rewrites and been published and been read and reviewed and argued over. It’s only then that I understand the novel and get a better sense of where it came from.

However, that’s not the same thing as remembering what I was thinking at the moment I first sat down to write. The further I am from writing the novel, the harder it is to remember what I was thinking way back then. I’ve always assumed other writers are the same way, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about writing it’s that you can never assume that.

Here’s what I can tell you about my intentions: none of my published fiction began with the desire to teach a lesson, or make a political point. My stories almost always begin with the main character. With a line of dialogue, or a stray thought, that feels like it comes out of nowhere.8

But that’s not entirely true either.

The Magic or Madness trilogy came out of my desire to write a fantasy where magic had grave costs. I have been an avid reader of fantasy since I was first able to read. I was sick to death of magic being used as a get-out-of-gaol-free card. No muss no fuss, no consequences! Ugh. Way to make what should have been a complex, meaty, wonderful immersive reading experience into a big old yawn. When I started my trilogy I was definitely not going to do that. Likewise with Liar I’d had the idea of writing a novel from the point of view of a pathological (or possibly compulsive) liar for ages.

However, those books were nothing but a few scribbled notes until the main characters came along and breathed life into those static ideas and turned them into story. That is the magical part of writing fiction. I have no idea how it happens.

How To Ditch Your Fairy and my forthcoming novel, Razorhurst, began with the main character’s voice. In both cases I’d been hard at work on another novel when those characters came along and I had to stop work on the deadline novel and start the new out-of-nowhere one. I had no idea what those books were about or where they were going until I completed the first draft.9

With How To Ditch Your Fairy, I realised that I had written a world without racism or sexism. A utopia! No, of course not. Inequality still exists. One of the things I like about HTDYF is that it’s a corrupt world but that’s not what the book is about. In the main character’s, Charlie’s, world the best athletes are the elites and, yes, some of them abuse that power. But she barely blinks at that. It’s something she has to deal with like bad weather. Yes, some readers were annoyed that Charlie does not fight the power. But that’s not what the book is about. There are glimpses of other characters who are fighting the good fight but How To Ditch Your Fairy is not their story. I wanted to tell Charlie’s story.

I still think HTDYF is a political book. But it’s usually not read that way. Nor did I set out to write a political book. I think if I had decided to write a book about how people survive within a corrupt system, how the frog does not notice the water boiling, I would not have written the novel or any novel. I do not write fiction to teach lessons.

In my discussion with Tayari Jones she said “it’s about starting with moral questions. Not moral ANSWERS.” I agree wholeheartedly and think Tayari’s wonderful books are powerful exemplars of just that.10 It probably looks like what I said above contradicts Tayari but I don’t think it does.

Most of us, writers or not, are thinking about moral questions all the time. I have thought long and hard about about how inequality operates, and about how so many of us are complicit, how we turn a blind eye because it’s easier, and because, let’s be honest, all too often it’s safer to do so. I’ve written about why so many don’t report harassment/assault/rape. There are many reasons to stay silent and one of those reasons is being so used to evil that you stop seeing it. It’s the way the world is.

Anyone who is thinking about these kinds of questions is going to write political books whether they intend to or not. Everyone is informed by their politics, their religion—or lack of religion—by who they are, and how they exist in the world. In that sense we all write political books and live political lives.

To go back to what Tayari Jones said, these moral questions shape our writing, but often we don’t realise that until we’ve written them. Novels can be a way for us to figure out what we think about a moral question. To run through the various different angles on a problem and see what the consequences are. Even when we don’t realise that’s what we’re doing.

This is different from setting out to write a story that tells a specific moral. Or as Tayari says it’s the difference between beginning with an answer or beginning with a question. Writers like Tayari and me prefer to do the latter.

To go back to the beginning of this post that’s not something a reader is going to know. Let’s face it, the vast majority of readers don’t turn to author’s blogs and twitter feeds and interviews to try and figure out what the author’s intentions were in writing their books. Most of us are happy to enjoy the book without much more engagement than that.11 Nor should they. The author is dead, yo. A reader’s experience of a book is their own. They get to read a book any way they please.12

The question of what a writer intended is probably of far more interest to writers than it is to readers. That’s why I asked Daniel if he’d ever started writing a story with the moral he wanted that story to teach. I hadn’t succeeded in doing that so I wanted to know if he had and, more importantly how he had.

I’d still love to know how writers manage to do that. If you’ve written anything you’re proud of starting with the lesson you’re teaching, do please share!

In conclusion: I have no conclusions I’m just thinking out loud.

Tl;dr: No one knows what an author intended with their work; except that author and they can be wrong. Besides the author’s dead. Or something.

  1. As is the condemnation when our work is deemed to be immoral. []
  2. When people make that request of me I usually tell them that’s not how I write and suggest they try writing their own moral-teaching novels. I do it nicely. Honest. []
  3. But, on the other hand, their fans aren’t as lovely as our fans so it all evens out. []
  4. Lots of people read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the story, not for the condemnation of Stalinism. []
  5. I’m very grateful to Tayari, her conversation helped shape this post. []
  6. Yes, readers and writers are almost always one and the same. I don’t know any writers who don’t read. []
  7. No, I don’t think that’s what Jane Austen intended us to learn from her novels. Not even close. []
  8. That’s how it feels but obviously that’s not what happens. Everything comes from somewhere. []
  9. Which is not me saying that I wasn’t making all the choices that led to those novels becoming what they are. I’m a writer, not a taker of dictation. My characters are not real to me in any but a metaphorical sense. []
  10. Seriously if you haven’t read any of Tayari Jones’s novels you are missing out. Leaving Atlanta and The Silver Sparrow are my favourites but they’re all fabulous. []
  11. Which is plenty of engagement, by the way. []
  12. Upside down and suspended from a crane over the harbour if that’s what tickles their fancy. []


  1. rockinlibrarian on #

    So timely. I was just pondering this topic in regards to my own writing yesterday. Not only do I think you’re absolutely right about the order these things happen in, but I think you’ve nailed one of the biggest issues in my current long-running writer’s block.

    I always figured I’m just distracted, because I pretty much stopped writing seriously (in comparison to how I’d worked before at any rate) just before my first child was born, almost seven years ago. My excuse has been I just don’t have time to write, I’m too distracted to write, but everyone says you’ve got to MAKE time or you’ll never have it. So I was pondering why I can never seem to MAKE time, either, and I think it’s because I’ve psyched myself out. I’ve convinced myself that I don’t have time to write junk, so now I can’t write ANYTHING. When I try to think of something to write, all my inner voices say something like “You must write a story addressing the Very Important Topic of ____!” and I get so stuck on writing an Important Message that I can’t think of a story to go with it. (At least I don’t try to PUBLISH the tripe I’d come out with if I did that. As it is my taste is too good, and I know what I’d write like that would suck, so… again, nothing gets written). I almost wish I DID have a belief that stories are written with Purposes, just so I’d WRITE SOMETHING.

    No advice to get over this hurdle, have you?

  2. Justine on #

    rockinlibrarian: I’m not sure my advice is worth much as I’ve never had a kid. Just being an aunt and looking after my niece one day a week has given me a glimpse at how much parents do, how consuming it is and how it changes everything. Frankly I’m amazed parents manage to do anything other than parent.

    Were I you I guess I would start by trying to remember how I used to write and perhaps try to recreate that.

    You’re not alone though as I illustrated above. Whenever I try to write something brilliant and award-winning. I.e. when thoughts of how people are going to respond to what I’m writing are foremost in my mind I am unable to write. I need to be focussed on the now of the writing not the later of how people will respond.

    When I’m trying to write again after a long break I struggle. I’ve learned to just accept that it’s going to take awhile and my writing’s going to be shite but I keep plugging at it.

    Not sure any of that will help. Good luck!

  3. rockinlibrarian on #

    It WAS helpful, if only emotionally. 🙂

  4. Aline on #

    I’ve been thinking about this a fair bit. I’ve never really done it myself, let alone successfully. I do think it’s possible, but the moral question is a necessary middle step.

    I mean, you don’t want your readers to merely glean the message you intended from your writing; you want them to internalise it, to agree and to change their behaviour accordingly. But in order to teach someone something effectively, you have to show them why you think you’re right and why it’s important they learn it. So when you go and craft your story, you’re crafting it with these two basic questions in mind.

    So if you’re writing a story meant to teach that you shouldn’t fauxpologise when confronted with something you said or did, then you have to explore the issues of whether fauxpologies really are wrong, and why they are wrong, and why they’re so pervasive.

    And, of course, because morality is inherently complex and stories aren’t exactly mathematical proofs, there is a very real risk that the reader will see something that you haven’t in the situations you’ve chosen to present, and they’ll come to a completely different conclusion.

  5. Shawna on #

    I wrote a short play in college that I did deliberately want to teach a lesson. It was a sort of alegory. (I don’t mean to say that’s a good thing. I look back at those short plays now and cringe, but maybe that’s what college is for.) Anyway, it was interesting to see what different people thought the message was. When I finally succumbed to their requests to disclose what message it was I’d meant to convey, I got the feeling that a lot of people were disappointed, probably because they didn’t agree with my message, even though they’d found the play interesting. That’s when I learned that even when I do try to convey a “moral” in my stories, I should never explicitly disclose which moral that is. It’s so much more interesting for everyone to just let the readers/viewers decide for themselves. (Besides, I learned in my lit classes that author intent doesn’t matter in lit criticism, so may as well not bother. People will take out of a story whatever they want to take out of it.)

  6. Justine on #

    rockinlibrarian: Yay!

    Aline: [T]here is a very real risk that the reader will see something that you haven’t

    You know I think you’ve identified one of the problems. Fiction is so complicated as it is that attempting to narrow it to one teachable lesson seems doomed from the start.

    Shawna: That’s when I learned that even when I do try to convey a “moral” in my stories, I should never explicitly disclose which moral that is. It’s so much more interesting for everyone to just let the readers/viewers decide for themselves.

    Yes! I do think readers are frequently disappointed when we writers explain ourselves because what we think we were doing is not always what they thought we were doing.

  7. Ariel Zeitlih Cooke on #

    As is often the case, Philip Pullman says it best: “…I’m not in the message business; I’m in the “Once upon a time” business.”

    A wonderfully pithy sound bite. And I also love PP’s whole leadup to this sound bite (but in a different way):

    “As a passionate believer in the democracy of reading, I don’t think it’s the task of the author of a book to tell the reader what it means. The meaning of a story emerges in the meeting between the words on the page and the thoughts in the reader’s mind. So when people ask me what I meant by this story, or what was the message I was trying to convey in that one, I have to explain that I’m not going to explain. Anyway, I’m not in the message business; I’m in the “Once upon a time” business.”

    By the way, I do understand your desire to move on and write other things but…I miss the world of Magic or Madness. Dying to know what became of the glowing magical baby. And will Esmeralda’s tree last forever? And so many more questions.

  8. Justine on #

    Ariel Zeitlih Cooke: A very apposite quote.

    You know, if the trilogy had been a big success I might have written more books in that world. But only the first book sold well. There simply weren’t enough readers like you to make it viable. Economic realities are often lowering.

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