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?
I’ve been thinking again about why I write. I’d love to hear from other writers out there. Take this poll and I’ll share the results in an upcoming post.
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.
Great things to think about her Audrey. Art and Commerce can collide. I do believe there is absolute art in the Harry Potter series and it was a commercial success. I think trying to pinpoint why and replicate it is far more difficult. For me art should take a backseat to communication. If all my pretty language confounds the reader, then I’ve not done my job as a writer. If my language and my metaphors enhance the reader’s experience while still taking them on a smooth journey, I’ve succeeded. Though if this will lead to commercial success, well that’s anyone’s guess. 😉
Well put re: communication. Though I struggle with the idea of how much the reader should have to work. Some prose is so transparent you don’t notice it; sometimes I crave that kind of reading experience (Stephen King is a master of this). Other times I WANT to be challenged, poked, pushed, pulled, and made to think—though not confused!
It’s tough. I think this is where marketing really comes in. If I know I’m getting lit fiction, I’m expecting more beautiful language and thinking. If it’s a cozy mystery, I’m expecting a cool mystery with straight forward language. 🙂
Yes, marketing—the subject of my next blog post. I suppose, too, that one person’s art is another’s dreck.
I think this is a subject that’s never going to be definitively answered. John Scalzi had a piece on this recently, and he writes for money – but not exclusively. Personally I have made up stories for as long as I can remember and started writing them down in childhood, and I find it strange that other people might not have that experience.
Yes–it’s hard for those of us for whom writing is rather like breathing to think there is any other way to write. I’m going to check out Jonh Scalzi, thanks.
Hi Audrey, it looks like Kait has hit some trouble and we have no mid-week check-in. So no one is left out, please come over to our Facebook group and leave a link to your check-in post and we will be over to visit. The page address is https://www.facebook.com/groups/row80/ Alternatively, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll pass your post on. I know Facebook isn’t everyone’s cup of tea!
Should we have no Linky on Sunday, we’ll just keep working this way until things sort themselves out.
Cate (Round 1 Sponsor)
Thanks for the info. I usually check in just once a week, so I’ll keep my eyes open for what’s happening on Sunday.
I started writing because I suddenly felt ready to commit to “paper” one of a number of stories that had been in my head for years. Eleven years later, I’m still writing because it’s the most fun I’ve ever had doing something “productive.” I do want to put it before readers – it’s not just for my own amusement – but I’ve come to the conclusion that my WIP is something the traditional publishers would see as having commercial potential. For that reason, and others, I am looking into self-publication.
“Success,” though, is something I have to define in my own terms…
You must be having fun… or you wouldn’t have continued for eleven years! I hope you’re able to pursue the self publishing route. It allows works to find an audience that wouldn’t otherwise. And I hope you can stay true to your own definition of success.
Actually I agree with Carrie. All those stories are rattling around in my head. It’s fun to write short stories – and see how people react to them. ( and sadly I too love outlining longer pieces, organizing structure and details – only way to keep focus)…but then there are the ones that write themselves….
Many great books never become successful – over shadowed; some really bad books sell really well and become popular (some really leave you shaking your head in wonder) Mostly it’s right story hitting the right market/readers at the right time – so many things affect a book’s “success”
Ah, we all have those moments when we read a book published by a “reputable” or “established” publishing company and wonder what kinds of drugs they were taking… conversely, I have read many self-published and first-time works that make me think, “Wow, why didn’t they get a book contract?” It’s a hard slog and if your ONLY motivation is getting widely read, you may spend a large part of your writing life unhappy!
I love making up stories. I’ve done it in my head for so many years, it only made sense to get serious about putting them down ‘on paper.’ Plus, I write because I love the ‘technical’ aspect of it. Although this will make pansters cringe, I enjoy the outlining phase–making sure I plant a hint there, introduce a character here, foreshadow an event there, and so on. I like doing things step-by-step so that when the time comes to put it all together, everything is in its right place. Hopefully…
I knew there wouldn’t be just a single answer, even for a single person! Thanks for sharing. It’s funny, I enjoy outlining, too–of other people’s stuff or non-fiction, not my own fiction. Maybe I’ll have to try it for my revision, though.