Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Writing for writing’s sake

I’ve attended an embarrassment of conferences and workshops over the past couple of years (love that collective noun) and hence have heard many authors, editor and agents speak about writing and the publishing industry. I’ve also read articles by many, many more—both in print and on the web. Basically, where I would never pretend to have learned all there is to learn (not even close), I’ve learned a fair bit about this business called fiction publishing. And still, I’m constantly making little revelations or realizing last week’s revelations sucked.

I’ve blogged before about conflicting advice on Drunk Writer Talk and I think this week I’ve had another kind of breakthrough in terms of one of those dichotomies. Or at least I’ve resolved to start thinking about it in a different way.

On the one hand one often hears: “You have to write for the love of writing. Writing is a tough business. Fickle. Lots of luck involved. Even if you get published the odds are against you earning a real living.” So, write because you love to write, because you have to write. (Well, I don’t totally buy that anyone HAS to write. I know I don’t. I’m happy to make up stories in my head.)

As many times as I’ve heard this “do it for the writing” advice and nodded my head in agreement, as many times as I’ve repeated it to my friends and family and other writing acquaintances, I recently realized I’ve never really committed to this idea.

From the day I decided to start writing a novel, I had publication in mind. I even chose the first genre I tried (romance) based on economics and what I saw as improved odds—there are so many published, surely it would be easier to break in and find success. Ha!

And therein lies the other side of the dichotomy. Many industry professionals will tell you to be aware of the market, to be smart about what you write, to avoid subjects or language that may offend, to react quickly to the market and adapt what you write to what’s selling.

This always sounds like good advice to me, too. I mean, my first career was a pretty conservative choice and if I should wake up tomorrow at age 18, facing the “which University, which career choice” again, even with the supposed “wisdom” I’ve garnered over the ensuing years, I’m not entirely sure I wouldn’t make the same or at least a similarly conservative choice again. I’m pretty sure I’d at least ensure I had a back up plan of sorts.


What I’m realizing is that I’ve let this second piece of advice, the career planning advice, the what kind of writer do you want to be questions, the where do you see yourself in the market questions... I’ve let that advice, those questions, paralyze me when I’m in the early stages of every book I start to write (okay, until I’m in the home stretch). Molly, stop laughing. Now.

With each book, I’ll get a certain distance in and go “this is too dark to be marketable”, or conversely, “this is too silly, will be taken as chick lit and chick lit isn’t selling”, “this is too trite for literary fiction”, or “this is too heavy for commercial fiction”, or “this book won’t be a good follow up if the last one sells”, or "I should try a paranormal erotica", "maybe I should write YA", "maybe I should write an inspirational Christian romance" (okay, I've never said that one.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still believe those career-minded questions are smart ones. I still think they encompass good advice. But I’ve decided it’s not the best advice for me right now. I’ve been in a very dark place about my writing. Very discouraged. Yes, I’m nominated for the Golden Heart. Yes, I’m happy about that and proud and know that over a thousand entrants who didn’t final—not to mention thousands of others who weren’t ready to or courageous enough to enter—would like to be in my shoes. I don’t mean to be ungrateful or to minimize this accomplishment. It’s just that I’ve been so focused since I started my first novel five years ago, on the end game. On publication. On publication with a major print publishing house.

And I know my GH nom, or even a win, won’t really affect that, especially because the nominated ms isn’t a romance. Sorry for the GH digression… Back on topic…

What I’ve decided—at least for today, this week, this month, this year, however long until I change my mind again—is that I need to write for the writing’s sake. In reaching this conclusion, I was remembering the heady days of starting my very first novel five years ago. Sure it was scary. Sure I thought I was writing something marketable. But I knew so little about the industry and I think all that ignorance freed me. Freed me to tell the story I wanted to tell. Freed me to put words down on paper and feel proud and good about those words, proud to see the word count, the page count, the chapter count piling up. Freed me to enjoy writing. These days, I’m not always enjoying it so much.

Now, I know (I hope?) that should I be lucky enough to have a career in fiction, that there may come a day when I will have to put career ahead of all other considerations when deciding what kind of stories to write, what tone to take, what themes to explore, etc. But for now? I think I just need to write.


Wylie Kinson said...

Hi Maureen,

I'm having a 'just one more blog before bed' kind of nights and to be honest, my eyes are at half mast.
This is a terrific topic, one that I'm going to re-read again tomorrow because it struck a nerve. Just too tired to decide how/which nerve.

So why am I commenting? Oh, I don't know... because I'm first? :)
In the words of the TERMINATOR mentioned previously, "I'll be back"

Kimber said...

This ties into that "Should I compromise on the story to land my desired publisher" or "Should I compromise on the publisher to write my desired stories" debate.

Story or publication first. A toughie and very personal. No right answers.

Nelsa said...

Wonderful post, Maureen. Wonderful.

Christine said...

Hi Maureen. This is a lot to think about. I know personally I reached my goal when I wrote the book I wanted to write. I tried to write to the market, tried to write to a specific publisher and just couldn't do it. In the end I took a step back and had to ask myself what story did I want to tell.

I think the enjoyment I had in writing that story came across and is one of the reasons it sold. Because if anyone told me five years ago I'd write and sell a science fiction erotic romance, I would have laughed.

Eileen said...

I try and remember to write for me and consider others when it comes to revision. You keep writing- and maybe come to Surrey again?

Wylie Kinson said...

I'm baaa-ack.
Kinda agreeing with what Christine said in terms of NOT writing with a market in mind - just writing what you feel best doing.
Personally, I still haven't found my 'voice', so I've been writing erotic, erotic romance (fell into the erotic stuff as a bit of a joke) children's stories, satire etc...
What would I LIKE to be? Margaret Atwood, Anne Marie MacDonald, David Sedaris :)
What am I capable of at this point?
Erotic/romantic shorts and novellas that are light and fun, while I learn my craft (better).
I never imagined I could write 'the great American novel' or anything even close to it out of the gate, so I decided to take baby steps, try different genres (I'm working on both a paranormal and a historical pirate romance at the moment) and just see what fits. I recently learned that straight erotica is definitely NOT ME.
Again, GREAT post with lots of food for thought.

Maureen McGowan said...

I do believe in both those pieces of advice... In there lies the rub. But I think there are times in my process when I should ignore the market. I know I did when I was writing the book that landed me an agent...

Kristen Painter said...

As I fellow GH finalist, I couldn't agree more with everything you've said. That GH nod is cool, but will it change anything? Doubtful.

Gotta write for writing's sake.

M J Anderson said...

Hey Maureen.

I'm sticking with the blind, naive, and driven solely by passion path to writing.
And here's why.
I was an actor. I studied. I learned. I undertand so much about the biz.
And I didn't have a CLUE as to how to function in it.
I actually know TOO much. It tripped me up in interviews, it tripped me up in auditions, and it tripped me up at parties.
And kicker was that all the people who were succeeding were the people with degrees in Anthropolgy. Or Mathematics. Or who had no desire to BE an actor, they just kind of fell into it because a friend dragged them along to some audition or something equally stupid.
I now LIKE the fact that I know relatively shit about publishing, or how to write for that matter.
A number of our speakers have all said the same things:
Good writing trumps everything (Molly O'Keefe), and Write what you like. (Claire Cross). On romancenovel.tv all the authros go on and on about sticking with your passion.
It seemed to work for them.
You have the ability to make up whole new worlds in your head. Honour that. Go with that. In the end you've always got that.
But then, what do I know.
I don't know shit.

Diana Peterfreund said...

Great post, Maureen... sorry I'm late.

I don't think there's anything wrong with thinking about it in terms of the industry -- that's what commercial fiction writers do. That's what people who get paid for their fiction do. If we didn't care about what the market thought, we'd write it down on wrapping paper and stick it under our beds.

But it is a problem once it becomes paralyzing to your writing. Everything in moderation. Art in moderation, industry in moderation.

Sometimes, when the writing is hard, I try to remember the days when I didn't know anything about it, when I wasn't questioning the things I question now. I can't do it. Props to you if you can.

Sara Hantz said...

Great post Maureen. I can't write just for the love of writing. I've always needed something more to motivate me. So though I write in the style I like to read, I do have one eye on the industry.

Anonymous said...

What an awesome post, Maureen. I think I'm in that same place. I finally decided to publish my manuscript because an agent believed in it, I believed in it, and others believed in it. But I don't want to self-publish again - I, too, have that dream of the big publishing deal. But now I'm paralyzed when it comes to "what's next." Nothing ever seems good enough. Sometimes we know too much and that's when we become paralyzed.

Mia King said...

Maureen, lovely post. I'm reminded of the quote by Tony Robbins, "The meeting of preparation with opportunity generates the offspring we call luck." By writing, writing, writing, you're preparing yourself for those moments that will cross with opportunity - I am actually very optimistic about the world of publishing, but only for those people who write, rewrite, and are wililng to work at their craft. It's a job like anything else, but as someone once said (I'm all quotes today!), "Doing what you love isn't any easier than doing something you don't love, you just don't give up as easy."

Have a greet weekend, Maureen!

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