Your writing reflects your unique — and sometimes messy — vision of the world. But how much should you compromise or censor yourself to get published? Urban fantasy author Stacia Kane delves into tricky questions of art and commerce.
A few weeks ago over on the Romance Divas forum a discussion was started about honesty in your writing, and what that means. The initial question, posted by the lovely and talented Kate Pearce, was whether or not we, as writers, compromise ourselves – change what we want to write – in order to sell the work or make it "acceptable" to a particular audience. Do we stop ourselves from writing things readers might react badly to. Keeping in mind we're discussing genre fiction, and genre fiction has certain conventions and reader expectations. All of which are, of course, perfectly fine; readers are entitled to expect the book they pick up will be what the cover and bookstore shelving or whatever promises them it will be.
But at what point do we stop writing what we want to write in order to be successful? At what point do we suffer for refusing to do so?
The thing is, your writing should excite you. Not ‘excite" as discussed in the Strumpet series, lol (although sometimes it should, depending on what you're writing), but excite as in fire you up intellectually and creatively. I firmly believe that if what you're writing doesn't do that, the reader will sense it. The writing will be flat. The story will seem cliche. And frankly, a flat, cliche story stands very little chance of selling (yes, there are exceptions, but in general, and especially when it comes to first-time authors or those just beginning careers). This post isn't about writing techniques, though. It's about the deeper aspects of writing, the emotional stuff, the stuff we couch in skill.
But how much is too much? What if the story that really excites you is one so out there that the odds of anyone wanting to buy or read it are infinitesimal? I believe fantasy, especially, is a genre with lots of room for growth and change. I believe readers on the whole are a lot smarter than some people give them credit for, and a lot more willing to and capable of stepping onto that ledge and seeing where the writer wants to take them. But if you're writing a cannibal romance, you're probably going to have a hard time, let's face it.
We all know compromise is part of life, or rather, there is an element of compromise in life. We all know that we can stick to our guns, and write that romance where the hero and heroine sit down at the end to a nice big plate of baked human hearts with artichokes and mushrooms, with the freshly slaughtered carcasses stored in their deep freeze, but that may limit our publishing options. You might be able to sell that cannibal love story to a horror publisher or imprint, but it's probably not going to fly with genre romance (hey, I could be wrong, this is just my personal feeling).
The problem–and the fundamental question here–is, at what point are you compromising too much? What is your work to you; is it stories you write for a laugh and to pay the bills, or is it an expression of yourself? (That's not to say stories you write for a laugh and to pay the bills can't be an expression of yourself. The difference is in how you view them, to some degree.) In other words, how much do you care about what you write, how much of yourself do you put into it? How deep do you go? How honest are you?
How deep should you go? How much do you need to expose yourself, if at all? How much should you expose yourself?
And how much of your decision is practicality, and how much is fear?
This touches on a larger, more fundamental question, which is whether or not fiction is art and whether or not writers are artists. And whether or not genre fiction is art. I think we'll talk about that and the implications of it a bit more later, but we can't really have this discussion without at least mentioning it first, so we have some kind of lens to view the discussion through.
My personal feeling is that every writer puts something of themselves into their work, whether they mean to or not.
Writing books is in some ways akin to exposing yourself. You write a book. You pour large parts of yourself into it. The characters may or may not be you–usually they aren't–but if you're really digging deep into the POV character, you are by necessity accessing parts of yourself and putting them on the page, no matter how ugly or embarrassing or painful they may be; no matter how joyous or fun or delightful they may be.
A book is the expression of truth as you see it and experience it. Every moment, every scene, every sentence is you expressing something important to you, no matter what it is. No matter what the plot is, no matter the setting or genre, you're telling a story that came from you. You have to be in there; if you're not, where and how is the book connected to you and to the rest of the world? If you're not, what exactly are you writing, and is it what you really want to write or is it just something you're writing to make money? How proud are you, or can you be, of the latter?
I think these are questions that can and do make a lot of people uncomfortable, and I have some thoughts on why, which we'll discuss in the next post. But this is what I know. Writing something you really put yourself into is terrifying. Doing anything you really put yourself into is terrifying. And it is that way for a lot of reasons. Writing that way is akin to sharing your deepest secrets with a lot of strangers, and inviting them to poke and prod at your weakest points, your deepest insecurities. There are people out there who will look at your work and decide they know what kind of person you really are because of what you wrote. There are people who will decide that by exposing yourself in your work you have invited them into every other part of your life; look at the types of questions some erotic romance writers are regularly asked about their sex lives. There are people who will hate your book and be unable to separate that from you as a person. There are people who will decide that because you've written a certain type of character or story you deserve to be shamed or shunned; they will confuse you with the work to the extent that not just the work but you yourself become an object of derision, as if you are a book yourself with no feelings. And maybe they shouldn't be able to completely separate you; who can really say? If you're putting yourself that deeply into your work, are you actually stripping yourself, baring yourself? If they disagree with your truth, don't they have a right to say that, and to say it about you and not just your work?
Perhaps eliciting that kind of reaction is a good thing. People may dislike the timid, but they don't tend to hate them with such a passion. Maybe if you've done something that makes people that angry, it's a good thing. I've never been someone who believes that the purpose of art is to shock or anger. But can we say that if you do shock and anger people, you've obviously touched them on some kind of deep level? And that perhaps an emotional reaction of that depth is the purpose of writing, and thus the purpose of art?
Perhaps if people hate you because of something you've written it's because you refused to stay in the box they wanted to put you in. People don't like it when you're not easy to classify; they don't like it when you try to challenge what they expect you to be. There are people in this world who dislike it when others show depth or intellect; there are people who simply cannot handle disagreement with them or the idea that others see things differently, people who are incapable of stepping outside of their own worldviews for a moment. Those people exist in every field, in every country, in every place, all over the world (look at some of the arguments people have over science questions, or politics, or about whether or not Spiderman could beat Iron Man in a fight. I'm not saying everyone who dislikes or diagrees with something or someone is being small-minded, that's not remotely what I mean. I'm just saying that when you expose yourself and your work, or your theories or opinions, to the wider world, you have to be prepared for all kinds of reactions).
But eliciting that kind of reaction can be terrifying, too. Unnerving. And it's something we don't always prepare ourselves for. Something I'm not sure we can prepare ourselves for. No one can predict what kind of reaction a piece of writing or a piece of art–whether they're different things or the same thing–will get.
The thing is, I don't know a single writer who doesn't feel emotionally vulnerable about their work, no matter how light-hearted the work is. I don't know a single writer who doesn't feel, after writing an intense scene or finishing a novel, as if they've just spent several hours being psychoanalyzed and poked with sticks. No, our characters are not us. But if our books are the expression of truth as we see them, if our books are expressions of ourselves, then we have exposed ourselves. If we've been honest in our work then we have essentially invited strangers into our minds and hearts, into our psyches, and invited them to rummage around a bit.
We're trying to connect with people. We're trying to connect with readers. We're trying to share an experience with them, make them think and feel, and do it in the most honest way we can. (We're trying to entertain them first and foremost, of course, but this is about the deeper aspects of our work.) We want them to connect emotionally with what we've written; there is no greater compliment than to be told by a reader that your work made them cry (um, assuming it was a sad or emotional scene, of course. It's not a compliment if your light comedy made a reader cry through its sheer awfulness. Nobody wants a reader to put down their book, drop to their knees, and scream, "Why is life so terrible?!")
Isn't creating something with the intent to elicit an emotional response in someone else, art? Isn't that the purpose of art?
And if it is, why do we so often shy away from calling it that?
This post by Stacia Kane originally appeared on her blog.