Last week, my usually sedate monthly critique group erupted in a lively debate.
We’re a diverse bunch, consisting of non-fiction writers pursuing memoir and personal essay, as well writers in various fiction genres: chick-lit, mystery, young-adult fantasy, historical, and literary (me). We seem like a gaggle of odd geese but I have come to really value the different writing approaches represented in the group. When my work gets lost inside the heads of my characters, the mystery writer will ask when I’m going to get to the next plot point. The chick-lit writer will call me out on a character’s motivation, pressing me to figure out the why behind the action.
So it was something of a surprise when one of our members became heated in her insistence that, no matter what, story must take precedence—even in a form like memoir.
“If you want to be successful, you can’t write just a good book,” she said. “You have to write a great book.”
I think most of us can agree with that. The heat in the room arose from the fact that her statement touches on some very fundamental—and often contentious and uncomfortable—questions about writing.
The “If you want to be successful…” statement makes us ask the question at the very root of it all: “Why do we write?” I explored this in an early blog post. But, like all questions of self and identity, it’s not something you figure out once and then put away in a drawer. You keep coming back to it.
Does everyone write with the goal of being “successful?” And if so, how do we define success?
The statement also makes us ask “What makes a book great?” I believe that, beyond a few general principles, there are almost as many ways of telling a story as there are books in the world. Narrative style, voice, tense, form—all of these can be infinitely varied and still work. The question then becomes about your audience. What kind of storytelling do they expect? Sometimes, you need to stay within the bounds of your genre. Other times, busting up the genre creates a whole new style of literature.
The answers to these two questions collide in the great cauldron where Art meets Commerce. The Art is the how and why we do it; the Commerce is how we are received and rewarded in the world. Can the twain ever meet? And where does your writing lie on the spectrum?
Poll: Why do you write?
Back to the ROW
Since receiving feedback on my novel a month ago from beta readers, I have been spinning my wheels. Realizing the depth and breadth of the changes I need to make feels overwhelming. Then I remembered how helpful it was to create outside accountability. So I’m rejoining ROW80 (two weeks late for this round, but they call themselves a forgiving group) because I have to get to work if I want to meet my ultimate goal of a finished second draft by the end of May. My commitment for now is six hours of writing a week dedicated exclusively to the novel. I’ll report back next week.