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.