Friday, November 15, 2013

Art Yes, but Not in a Vacuum

I made the distinction in my last blog post between writing for "art" and writing for a market. I argued then, and continue to argue, that trying to write for a market is a fools errand because no one knows what will sell. No one knows what the market will buy. (The exceptions, of course, are those writers who have established a market for their works: Danielle Steele, Dan Brown, James Patterson, Stephen King., etc., etc. The rule seems to be: If you want to write a best-selling novel, it helps to be a best-selling writer already.)

But if you are not writing for a market—and I don't think you should—if you have a story you want to tell, a vision you want to share, can you just put it down and send it into the world? I get the impression reading some threads that there are people who believe believe this. They feel their thoughts, feelings, perceptions are so fascinating that all they have to do make up sentences. It is an issue with which I have tussled all of my working life as a fiction writer: Just because I think a character is fascinating (often because the character has been based too heavily on myself) does not mean that anyone else thinks the character is interesting.

Everyone needs an editor, especially everyone who plans to self-publish his or her own fiction. Publishers Weekly recently ran a column by Betty Kelly Sargent making this point. She points out there are four kinds of editors: developmental, substantive, copy, and proofreaders. Four functions, all important.

She writes that substantive editors start their work once you have a decent first draft. "They help you find your voice and nurture it. They may ask you to rewrite a section or delete a character who isn’t bringing much to the party. They will ask all kinds of questions…your prose for readability, and your plot for plausibility. They suggest where to cut, to expand, to go deeper. They make sure you keep up the momentum, and point out where a character’s behavior doesn’t make much sense, or her dialogue doesn’t ring true." These are all matters that arise because we, the writers, have not been able to obtain enough distance from the work to see them. We need a skilled outsider to point them out.

Whenever I have taught fiction-writing, I have tried to maintain the attitude that the task of the students is to write whatever they want. Mine is to help them express whatever they want to convey in the clearest, most effective, most engaging way possible. Art yes, but unless it connects to another person it is a form of self-pleasuring.

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