I’ve spent the past five years exploring the publishing industry from different angles: as an MFA student, as an associate literary agent, as an editor. I’ve been a writer for a lot longer than that, and my first book, Breathing through Buttonholes, was published in 2003. But the writer I was back then looks nothing like the writer I am today. Although this implies growth and learning, in some senses there’s been a shrinking too. I often feel as though the ground beneath my feet is moving, and not just because I live in San Francisco. Some of this instability has to do with the big shifts that I’ve made between countries (South Africa and the US) and the resulting crises of voice and expression; between arenas (academic and commercial); and between being the writer I’m inclined to be, and the writer who must survive. I struggle to compromise between following my own path and instinct, and pandering to a set of formulaic rules that are becoming more and more intrinsic to the publishing scene. We have unlimited access to articles on craft, many of them written by industry professionals: agents and editors who read hundreds of pitches and other paraphernalia attached to submissions. A lot of this advice is sound, but when we become sheep, applying standards that don’t allow for fresh interpretation, innovation and experimentation, we compromise our creativity and narrow the reader’s experience. Not just the reader’s experience, but his/her standards and expectations.
With less time on our hands and a barrage of digital information so easily accessible, intense focus seems to be a rare commodity. There are too many books, movies, games, apps, networking sites, articles and videos competing for our attention, and there’s a burgeoning need for things to be easy. If it isn’t, we move on. That’s understandable–life can be hard, and many, if not most of us are frequently overwhelmed by the roles we play, the jobs we hold, the crushing expectations and demands of our swiftly moving realities. But in an effort to please everyone other than ourselves, something is lost, and I can’t help wondering whether the cost of following rather than leading isn’t too high.
At some point, good advice can turn bad. Rules offered as guidelines become the noose that strangles the life out of our creativity. In an effort to become ‘better’ writers, we become the same writers, churning out production lines of derivative material that offers little in the way of expansion. Here are a few of the angels that can just as easily turn into demons if we don’t honor our creativity.
- RULES OF GENRE: Now a book must fit somewhere, and the snugger the fit, the better.
What’s good about this: As readers, we know where to go looking if we want to read a thriller/ romance/ mystery/ whatever. This is especially helpful in a bookstore, whether virtual or brick and mortar. As writers, we know what’s expected of us, as each genre is very specific about its demands. Since readers get pissed off when a book doesn’t live up to its classification, we make sure we know what’s expected, and deliver. The terms of the contract are easy enough to follow.
What’s bad about this: We sometimes forget that telling a story embraces more facets than one genre might accommodate. As the pool of discerning, patient readers shrinks, writers become more desperate to accommodate broad expectations: conform as much as possible, and you’ll sell more books. That seems obvious. It’s definitely easier than setting a trend, becoming a leader, being exceptional. Because really, we need courage and stamina to fly our freak flags, and there may be months, even years of market resistance to our risky, hybrid endeavors. And this may lead us to perceive our efforts as failure.
(Here’s something to think about: there’s nothing wrong with failure. It’s a perception, it’s relative, and every person who’s ever dreamed, or hoped, or reached for things beyond his/her immediate grasp, has failed. Heads up–failure cannot exist without its counterpart. It offers a sometimes steep learning curve, but as long as it pushes us forward, it can stop haunting us.)
- RULES OF CRAFT: Not only do we have to contend with traditional rules of language and craft, we now have to consider opinions. When opinion becomes consensus, we wedge our creativity into the margins that accommodate it. Don’t use modifiers–adjectives and adverbs are bad. Too much description is bad. Don’t delve into flashback until page 50. Get rid of the passive voice. Count how many times you use the word ‘was’ and then set about eliminating them. Show, don’t tell. There are any number of writing coaches who’ll apply these blanket rules to the advice they dish out, and because we hope to get published, we absorb them in the belief that our careers depend on it.
What’s good about this: We often get sentimental and verbose when we write, and this can spill over into overwriting or taking the easy way out. Some adjectives are lazy, many of them unnecessary. The passive voice can obscure meaning. Spare, powerful prose is the hardest to write, and good writing isn’t about quantity. Poets know this. Every word has to do its work, and if it doesn’t, it must go. The truth is, maybe we do need to know all this stuff, because that knowledge empowers us to make our own choices.
What’s bad about this: A master surgeon knows what to remove and what to leave behind. He’s not going to amputate your foot if only your pinkie toe is throbbing. Here I quote one of my favorite pieces of writing, which I do every chance I get:
It is spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and-rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboatbobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine tonight in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.
(You can’t take a scalpel to that. I think Dylan Thomas just said it all for me in Under Milk Wood.)
- RULES OF ENGAGEMENT: Power is a funny thing. It can be abused, and too much power can addle a person’s brain if it’s not diluted with a little humility. Because we think we depend on the captains of our industry, we’ll do anything to please them. Agents and editors will reject a submission because they don’t love the protagonist, because they don’t like magic realism, because they don’t loooooove the novel.
What’s bad about this: Everything, unless you have a special connection to Luck and there’s a flare of chemistry when your agent opens your email, or you know something I don’t.
What’s good about this: Nothing. Captains of industry serve the reader, and as Morticia Addams would say, “What’s normal for the spider, is chaos for the fly.”
(Don’t try to teach your goldfish to ride a bicycle, then when he can’t, modify it with flippers, then when that doesn’t work, buy him one with a snorkel. I have a goldfish fully equipped with all of these; he’s been trying for years, and he still can’t ride his bicycle. Time to let him do what he’s best at: swimming.)
Now reading this over, I have more metaphors than any self-respecting writer would toss into a thousand word blog post. But hey, I’ll live.
Keep asking questions. Keep reading. Keep finding and trusting your voice. Whatever you do, keep writing. I truly believe that as much as we need to trust our art, it needs to trust us too.
Post published at Write On Sisters.