Writing the ‘right’ way

March 26, 2011 § 18 Comments

I’ve been producing written work quite regularly for a few years now. I write short fiction, occasional film scripts and lately (as some of you will recall) I am writing my first full novel. I usually write in the genres of historical fiction and fantasy, though I divert into other areas as I feel like it.

I’ve taken writing courses, undergone critique from various people and groups, shared work with a range of audiences (both familiar and strangers), submitted a lot of stories to a lot of magazines, had a lot of rejections of various sorts and even had a few acceptances.

Over the course of that range of experience, two facts have become clear:

1) In terms of the popularity of my fiction among my various readers and audiences, the most successful stories were the funny ones.

2) In terms of the perceived ‘quality’ of my fiction among various authorities & experts (by which I mean such folk as magazine editors, slush readers and tutors), the funny ones have tended to be treated the most harshly.

If one lays those two facts side by side, a curious but nonetheless gaping gulf in logic, reason and sense emerges.

I’ve been told, at various times (including very recently) that stories must:

– Have a deep, emotional content

– Make a deep, serious, meaningful point

– Be written in an accepted ‘modern’ style

– Be written in an accepted ‘punchy’ style

– Be dramatic

They must not be:

– Exclusively funny. Humour is permissible only as decoration on an essentially serious tale

– Written in anything approaching an antiquated style. Even if it’s historical fiction, it must be a historical tale presented in ultra modern prose.

Anything outside of the former set of categories and falling foul of the latter has been variously deemed superficial, shallow, childish, immature, worthless, purposeless, irrelevant, and overall a waste of space. Curiously enough, the same people who can warmly praise my characterisation, use of language, command of grammar, plot structure, narrative arc and strong use of voice can still go on to seriously attack the same pieces for failing to be sufficiently emotional, deep, meaningful, dramatic or ‘modern’.

Now I ask you. If a story has good characters, good use of language, excellent grammar, effective plot structure and narrative arc, strong use of voice and furthermore readers find it entertaining to read, how then can it be considered poor writing? If it makes people happy to read it, how can it be considered unworthy of anyone’s attention?

I am, I admit, heartily tired of hearing these things from people who are often regarded as the only viable authorities. If the experts are saying something different to the readers, we listen to the experts. Why? Only the readers matter. If we are told that a certain way of writing is acceptable, we are expected to change. Why? If the readers like it, then it is irrelevant whether any other body of people considers it ‘right’ or ‘worthy’.

The problems lie in the methods of assigning value. For some, it’s about the next ‘big thing’. A ‘worthwhile’ writer is one who is either a) famous and earning a mint or b) winning book prizes. Publishing companies are businesses and, naturally enough, they look for the books that they think can bring the biggest financial returns. This system of value judgements filters down: I’ve even heard some fellow writers talk as if moderate success is almost the same thing as total failure. There’s also the problem of the overwhelming strength of subjective opinion when it comes to deciding on worth. If I don’t like it, it’s rubbish. Right?

These approaches lead to a world where it’s terribly  hard to do something different, or to find something different. I see an endlessly repeating pattern running through publishing that has become incredibly tiresome. I’m wearied to death of reading essentially the same stories over and over again before I find something really imaginative, unique, fun and engaging. I’m tired of being told that people just want to read the same thing again that they read last week, only with a different label on. It’s  dull in the extreme to see only some audiences regularly catered to.

All of this being the case, I have viewed the emerging changes in the publishing and reading worlds with great interest. As a reader, I feel increasingly liberated by the self-published or indie-published books that are appearing in ever greater numbers. Not that traditional publishing doesn’t produce some fantastic books, written by magnificent authors. I could cite hundreds of names in support of this point. But it can be hard to find those names amid the mass of same-old, and, sadly, many of these writers struggle to keep a contract and to keep their books in print – not because they are poor writers but because they don’t sell enough to make major waves. Self-publishing opens the way for a lot of fiction that’s simply hard to box and label, and it can remain available to interested audiences even if it isn’t making boatloads of money.

As a writer, these new developments represent choice. I’m tired of being told I should write something else. I am weary of poor ‘expert’ reception of stories that audiences loved, and the complete refusal to make them available to different audiences who might, conceivably, love them too. I am desperately annoyed with harshness or indifference from people who ignore whole bodies of work in favour of promoting a single, narrow, ‘right’ way to write.

I’d begun to feel beaten down by it, and it was killing my desire to write. I was increasingly confused by the astonishing differences of opinion I received from different groups on exactly the same material. I was – I am – befuddled by the reams of advice given out by competing authorities who all frequently contradict one another anyway, and whose advice often consists of ‘write the way I do’. Producing more writing began to seem like inviting another soul-destroying round of insults, and little else.

Finally I realise that I don’t have to do it that way, not now. If I produce a novel, I don’t necessarily have to spend months subjecting myself to many, many more debilitating rounds of the same. If I keep going and going relentlessly, will I eventually find someone to take me on? Possibly. Probably. So it’s often said in the stacks of writing advice I’ve been exposed to. But why? Why should anyone put up with that? Why should we feel that convincing specific people to recognise the value of our work is worth that much strife? Life is too damn short.

And since I began to feel that way about it, I find I can write more again. My novel’s nearing 60k, which  means it’s at around the halfway mark, and I got there because I felt good about it again.

Now, I know there’ll be people who will consider this post as merely the rantings of a ‘failed’ writer. No: I’m not a failed writer, and I never will be. I consistently write well, and I consistently entertain. How is that failure? There’ll also be people who’ll point and say, ‘This is why you’ll never amount to anything. Following the prescribed route to publication is the only way to succeed. You have to do it the way I did it.” Well… no to that, too. There are choices.

Most of the tales we writers produce won’t make a mint, and they won’t win book prizes either. They certainly won’t change the world. But as long as there are readers who want those stories, they ought to have their chance. Nobody should feel like they don’t deserve that much. So in conclusion: if your style of writing works for you and it works for your readers, stick to your guns! Nobody has the right or the power to tell you you can’t or shouldn’t write that way.

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§ 18 Responses to Writing the ‘right’ way

  • This post reminds me of a conversation I had with a woman with the amazing name of Sunda Croonquist(or something like that. She was producing stand-up comedy shows and I had just moved to New York City to pursue…yes, that’s right; stand-up comedy. I guess I was talking about comedians having different styles or lacking style or whatever and she said to me, “Scottie, there’s enough meat for everyone.” What she meant was that there is an audience for everyone and that we all, as artists, have value.

    • Charlotte says:

      Wow, what a great name. Sometimes I think I’ll adopt a pen name, something much more interesting than ‘English’. Something… Hungarian, or Russian. It’d be fantastic. Nobody would ever be able to spell it.

      Anyway, great quote, and so true. There are 6 billion people in the world (or is it 7 by now?) – there ought to be room in there to give just about anything space to fly!

      How interesting about the stand-up comedy. Do you still do it?

  • Think of all the rejection and pressure most of the greatest writers had to endure. I think you’re on the side of the angels, Charlotte. You’re not afraid to stand on your principles, now, and that’s got you writing again. Writing is what counts. That and being able to immerse your readers in your world. Who cares if you do it a little differently? You’re right–all this sameness is so wearying. That’s why I spend so much time with classics rather than contemporary books. Don’t get down off that high horse, missy!

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Kathleen,

      I have been thinking far too much of the rejection and pressure writers have to endure, and I think it’s sad. Some of that is inevitable – everyone has to suffer bad reviews etc – but more has been imposed than was ever justified. For too long, nobody had any choice but to put up with it, or put up with not being an author. It’s inspiring that one can decide not to go that way anymore!

      Thank you for the note about classics. It’s a very good point. The very popularity of many very old books is itself proof that a) Many readers don’t just want the same thing all the time and b) it’s far from reasonable to suggest that only the most ‘modern’ prose style can properly ‘engage’ readers. Quite a fatuous statement. There’s an elegance and style to nineteenth century books that ‘modern’ prose just can’t equal. It’s not for everyone, but not everyone has to have everything the same…

      Thanks so much for the comment! I like the view from up here on the high horse so I think I’ll stay a while 🙂

  • aarongraham says:

    In the end, I believe our best work comes from the things we are passionate about. Critics will always find things they love or hate about our work. The best any of us can hope for is to produce quality work to the best of our ability and find that voice that will not rest until it is given a life of its own in some form.

    My blogs are usually all about giving people 2 minutes of pleasure through humor. I suppose it is “superficial, shallow, childish, immature, worthless, purposeless, irrelevant, and overall a waste of space” but if it makes my readers smile for a moment, than I’ve succeeded.

    My books on the other hand, I want to stick with them much, much longer.

    I so look forward to following you on this journey you are on as you explore a growing world of self-publication. I know this: there are a hundred authors I would never even look at the cover art of their books in a bookstore…but the moment I see something being sold by Charlotte English in an ebook format, I’m going to download it. You are selling yourself and I’m already a fan. *smile*

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Aaron,

      I think you’re spot on about passion and voice – you’ve got to have strength of belief in what you’re doing in order to produce your best work. Or so I believe. Maybe that’s why it irritates me so much when people try to dilute that in me. The world doesn’t need any more of the same but there’s always the pressure to have everything arranged in boxes. It’s not just writing either. The UK education system is often criticised for taking that general approach to youngsters as well and I think it’s true – not enough is done in any sphere to encourage uniqueness & the courage to be different. Is it because humanity in general finds it more comfortable, or safer, to be the same?

      Enough philosophy. (Hey, that was me being deep. Maybe I’m not incurably shallow after all!!)

      Your blog has rapidly become one of my very favourites precisely because it makes me laugh. I really don’t ever give a crap what other people consider ‘worthy’: in my world, the things that make me laugh and make me happy are rated top. I don’t care if it also discusses world poverty or child abuse. Actually when it’s fiction I’d probably rather I didn’t. Is that superficial? Who cares?

      As for that last, while I knew you had a great sense of humour it’s becoming apparent you’re also a very nice guy. Thank you! That brightened my day!

  • Dieannah says:

    As a reader I agree with you. The self-publishing business has opened the door for many writers that simply don’t “fit” in “boxes”. I have personally discovered little gems digging through self-published books. Ones, I never would have discovered if I stuck to the N.Y.T. bestseller lists. There is also the flip side – anyone can self-publish. This, however, has not deterred me from excavating the treasures that can be found amongst the ruins.
    And Charlotte, if you enjoy what you are doing, I think you’re doing it the “right” way. Good luck with your novel.

    • Charlotte says:

      I heard somewhere recently the following quote:

      “The best thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it. The worst thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it.”

      How true. No doubt one is obliged to wade through a certain amount of rubbish to reach the gems, but they are worth the effort to find. Do you have any treasures to recommend, Dieannah?

      Thanks for the luck! Luck also with your new endeavour. Anything’s possible 🙂

      • Dieannah says:

        I’d rather not recommend any books. I’m not sure that my taste in books is anything like yours.
        I will say that I found a few on Smashwords (dot) com. Don’t know if you have heard of this site, but you will find many self-published books for download in different formats. Some are free and some cost anything from 99 cents to a few dollars.
        The ones I’ve checked out give you the opportunity to sample a few chapters before you decide to buy.

      • Charlotte says:

        Well – I ask around for recommendations quite often, precisely because I like being encouraged to look at books that are outside of my usual ‘tastes’ – it helps to broaden the field. However, fair enough! I discovered Smashwords a couple of weeks ago when they were doing their ‘read an ebook’ week. I picked up a few books free as part of the site-wide promotion, which I’m working my way through now. The quality is mixed, but so far some of them have been very good; therefore it’s worth ploughing through the lesser works to reach them!

  • I agree with the general thesis here. The best writing is the writing that engages your audience, whatever that audience is. That says nothing else about the content or style or anything of that writing. If that audience is people who want something funny – then funny writing will be best for them. If that audience is people who read with high literary concepts in mind, and look for “serious” prose, then the serious, literary works are best for them. Same goes true with Editors and Publishers… if you want to get through to their audience, you first have to engage the audience of the editors and publishers, and impress them.

    But if the writing fails to impress them, that doesn’t mean it was bad. It just means it wasn’t to their tastes. (It might be bad, but you can’t really say that based on the opinions of only one or two people alone.) Luckily, they aren’t the only way to reach an audience these days. They can be mighty helpful allies, but they aren’t the only way.

    • Charlotte says:

      Hi Stephen,

      No doubt that editors and publishers can be extremely good allies, if you can manage to catch their interest. It’s that last part that’s so hit and miss, which makes me glad there are other options these days. The whole picture is building up to be quite fascinating, and it will be really interesting to see what happens with publishing – across the board – over the next couple of years.

      You imply that it’s very hard to really call a book ‘bad’, and I think that’s true. There are some basic, fixed criteria required to ensure that a book is of a legible, readable standard; beyond that, if a book is called ‘bad’ it’s usually only that it was wrong for the reader. It causes me a little pain to say that, because I’ve seen plenty of books that I thought were truly execrable – and yet they manage to clock up quite a lot of really positive reviews online. What can I say, then, but that I’m not omnipotent about what makes a ‘good’ book – that nobody is? If people are enjoying a book, then I don’t think anyone has the right to say it shouldn’t have been published.

      • I do think that. Reading preferences are very taste-driven. What one person likes is not what another person will like – and there’s no right or wrong to it. So, yes, it’s hard to really and truly call something “bad” writing. There is only writing that is “good” for one audience or for another.

        There can be really, truly bad writing, I think – writing that is unlikely to engageany audience. But a failure to engage the attention of one or two people makes for a poor sample size, in that regard, and is not a good judge of the overall prospects of a given work.

  • Nisha says:

    Stephen King said once that he writes the kind of stories that he himself likes to read.
    I live by that quote; I feel if you write a story or novel and look at the end product and think to yourself ‘Hey I think this is good and if this were written by someone else I would definitely buy it’, then there will definitely be an audience for it. In the end its your thoughts that count and your happiness that matters. If you are going to write in a particular style or genre just to please a couple of arrogant,snotty-nosed, suit-wearing dodos, then you might as well not write at all. Thats my opinion anyway;)

    And I agree with Kathleen, almost every great writer had been rejected at some point. Hell, even Mr King!
    His first novel was rejected so many times that he eventually gave up and chucked it in the bin. Thank God for woman’s intuition. Wife Tabitha(also an author in her own right) fished it out behind his back and saved it. Now ‘Carrie” is an all time classic.
    Surely stories like this tell you something?

    Love your posts Charlotte, keep it up.

    PS. Btw my pet love is Victorian Literature. In a library or book store I always find myself subconsciously drifting towards the Classics Section. Anything post-1910 I tend to avoid, not deliberately mind. I wish I could read more modern works but I love the Old stuff so much its kind of difficult for me. So the point about Modern prose being more engaging to modern readers simply doesn’t do it for me…

    • Charlotte says:

      Can I just repeat that statement for the sheer fun of it?

      “Arrogant, snotty-nosed, suit-wearing dodos.”

      I think it is the inclusion of the word ‘dodo’ that so appeals to me.

      I like that anecdote about ‘Carrie’ very much. It does indeed expose one or two GAPING HOLES in the system that’s monopolised books up until recently. Thanks for sharing that.

      Thanks for the vote of confidence 🙂

      I do agree with you so completely about Victorian literature. I have the same compulsion when I walk into a book shop. It doesn’t matter how big my collection of nineteenth-century literature gets, I can’t resist looking at it anyway. The fact that so many people still read and love ‘old’ prose exposes the lie of this short-sighted view that everything must be modern.

      I wonder how simple facts like that can be so easily overlooked.

  • DarcKnyt says:

    *Insert standing ovation*

    Bravo, author! Bravo! Well said, well worded, brilliantly stated, and all truth!

    It’s a brave new world, and there are enough readers for all of us. Let’s give them what they want — stories.

  • DarcsFalcon says:

    Saw your comment on my husband’s blog and had to come over and read your blog for myself. 🙂

    *applause*

    I love this post! You are so spot on with this! A lot of quote-worthy stuff here. It is the readers, ultimately, who matter. 🙂

    • Charlotte says:

      Thanks so much for visiting & for the kind comment. Encouragement is invaluable, especially when one takes up posting mildly controversial things 😉

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