Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Compromising Positions

by David Ellis

I once told an audience that I would write stories for the rest of my life, even if I stopped being published. I have heard others make similar claims. It’s in our blood. It’s all we know. That kind of thing. But is it true? Would I really write an entire story even if I was absolutely sure that nobody else would read it? Would you?

Writing is in some ways an inherently isolated experience. You sit at a computer or with a note pad and you ply your craft. But we’re not writing solely for ourselves. We’re writing for our readers. So we make compromises at every turn. We don’t just write what we want to write. We write what we want to write but with this one gigantic qualifier—it has to be something other people want to read, too. You can’t be a good published author unless you’re a published author in the first place, no?

Someone with whom I used to work, who was accustomed to doing battles with me on the commercial viability of certain content in my novels, once told me, “Wait until you’re at Sanford’s level. Then you can write what you want.” I understood what she meant, of course, but it raised an important question. Was I writing just because it was a pretty cool and potentially lucrative way to make a living? Was I writing my earlier novels just to live for the day when I was so popular that I could “write what I want?” There's nothing wrong with either answer. But that doesn't mean it's not an interesting question.

Ultimately, I think what most of us are doing is choosing to write because we enjoy it more often than we don’t. More often than not, we get our way, and that’s good enough. More often than not, we are writing what we want to write, and then we make trade-offs, compromises, so that our books will be popular as well. We lighten up the darkness in our main character so he or she will be more “mainstream.” We take out the racial epithets because, even though it’s perfectly consistent with the character to utter them, those words are too bombastic, even in fiction. We make our characters politically correct. Every author has had those battles with agents and editors in this regard. Or we avoid that talk by self-editing as we write, which is the same thing. Either way, we’re avoiding that which will make readers object, maybe boycott future books. Maybe our publishers will drop us.

And maybe I have the premise wrong. Maybe we are writing for the reader in the first place. What’s the famous tip about writing? “Leave out the part that readers skip.” That advice suggests that we’re doing this for the reader all along. When an author pitches a main character to me—a smart, sexy private eye; a crusading attorney; a gun-for-hire with a heart of gold—it’s hard to imagine that the author hasn’t crafted that character in large part with an eye toward commercial popularity.

So maybe we’re just entertainers and nothing more. We enjoy the interactive nature of giving people a small piece of enjoyment. We provoke them, we scare them, we make them laugh, whatever. Hey, it’s icing on the cake if we also get some personal fulfillment out of this, but it’s all about the reader when all is said and done.

I think about this because I have a second career in the law, and I sometimes wonder about my priorities and why certain things are important to me. And I often wonder whether I should make a certain compromise on a character or subject matter in a book. Even for those of you who are full-time writers, life is full of choices, and I think this is an interesting exercise.

I’m interested in any thoughts.

24 comments:

Sara Paretsky said...

thought-provoking post, Dave. I wrote for years before trying to get published because my stories were how I could explain the world to myself. In those days I supported myself through other jobs, ranging from dishwasher to selling computers to insurance agents. Becoming a professional writer alters the way I relate to my stories. I still write some privately, just for myself, but I often wonder what i'll do if the book market disappears sufficiently that I can't earn a living through writing. No answers, only questions--although I tend to feel bitterly towards people like you or Scot Turow or Stephen Carter who have great careers in another sphere--I'm like Colonel Sanders--I only know how to do one thing. Although I still wash dishes very efficiently.

David Ellis said...

Thanks, Sara. I think it's fair to say you won't be in danger of losing your market any time soon. But it's a valid question. We should always be unafraid to challenge ourselves with questions like this. Fortunately or unfortunately, I am addicted to writing.

Guyot said...

I think I've always written for the reader/audience. My very first storytelling came in 4th and 5th grade, when I wrote stories to make my classmates laugh.

I kept writing because I enjoyed the attention and praise, but what I wasn't aware of at the time was that I also loved the process.

I navigated toward screenwriting as opposed to prose because I loved movies and wanted to make movies. Write movies. Again, for the final product, for the audience reaction.

But again, it was the process I loved often times more than the result. A lot more on those early days.

Now, old, fat, and washed up, I am fully aware that it is the process of writing I love. The blank page, as scary and daunting as it is, makes me salivate with anticipation. Halfway through, when I'm stuck or have written myself into a corner, I get frustrated, I'm a pain to be around, but I'm still loving it, still loving the process of finding the answer, fixing the problem.

I have written countless pilots of imagined television series that will never see light outside the computer file they sit in. I've written many more short stories than I've had published, or tried to get published. I wrote them because I had an idea and had to get it out of my system. Like all writers.

I've always rolled my eyes at writers who talk about how much they hate writing, how their blood's on the page, how they wished they could do something else.

Bullshit. Then go do something else. 90% of all writers aren't making good livings at it, so why would a person ever put themselves through such "torture" unless the truth is they love it.

For me the toughest writing is the getting-paid writing. When I'm under contract and on deadline, and writing within parameters and walls and handcuffs placed there by people who truly have no idea how to tell a story.

I would imagine the same could hold true for prose writers under contract. While you don't have a myriad of silly, illiterate execs breathing down your neck at every sentence, you do have an obligation, a time table, and other pressures I'm sure.

So, yes, sometimes writing for a living is hard. But God, I am so lucky to be able to support my family from it. So very lucky.

And I cherish the days I sit in front of the keyboard creating worlds and people and places no one else has seen or heard of before. Even when it's incredibly difficult, and even when my brain reminds me there's a golf course or well-stocked lake only miles away.

David Ellis said...

Well said!

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Excellent, Dave. Although I question colleague's assumption that once you are popular you can just "write what you want." I think I know a number of popular series writers who would like nothing more than to pull a Paul Sheldon but feel a responsibility to their readers (and to their agent and to their publisher and to their families) to build on or at least repeat their previous success.

It's not just in writing, it's in any vocation, but I think you always trade one kind of pressure for another.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Guyot is not old, not fat, and not washed up. This shows he writes fiction.

Adam Bourgoin said...

David, great post!

I honestly think I am one of those people that no matter what happens, I will always write. I have yet to be published in book format and, although I would love to be published in book format, I don't think me NOT being published would deter me. I would just keep pumping them out. (I say this, yet I am working on manuscript #1 so feel free to ignore me if you think my thought has no weight behind it.)

Like you, I have a full time job and writing is something I do because I love it. You have been fortunate enough to be published so you get the best of both worlds. Hopefully I can be there with you someday.

I think that in today's diverse marketplace, anyone CAN be published with all the resources out there-if you want so bad to be in print but can't land a deal, self publish. That may not be the best way but if seeing your name on the cover of a book means that much, then by all means, go for it.

But I like to think that people write because it's a craft that they love; on the flip side, I fear some people are solely doing this for the notoriety and fame that come with epic novels. I got news for them-they chose the wrong damn thing to get into. We're not all Ernest Hemingways and Jack Kerouacs.

Write because you love to write. Everything else that may come with it is just a fringe benefit.

David Ellis said...

I agree with you, Adam, and your opinion carries a lot of weight. Thanks for the note.

Michael Dymmoch said...

I’m with Guyot. I wrote the Cymry Ring and Death in West Wheeling solely to please myself. Sure, I wanted to share the stories with others, but I subscribe to the theory that if you please yourself, at least one person will be happy. (Which is not to say I ignore input that will enable me to tell my stories well.) The one time I caved—when my editor informed me St Martin’s would not publish a book titled Cats Burning, taught me not to sell out again.

It took me ten years to get Cymry and West Wheeling published, but when I did, others liked them too.

I’ve written things for hire—non-fiction and a screenplay—and I may do so again. But it wasn’t/wouldn't be my work.

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