Something I have thought a lot about this year is what is the ultimate writing end game? I’m not necessarily referring to my personal goals and fantastical dreams but what ultimate purpose does a story serve? Whom am I supposed to be writing for?
The genesis for these questions has been paying more attention to advice I read and hear about what an editor/agent/publisher wants and expects. It’s not that I necessarily disagree with certain points made just that it gets me thinking.
When I first picked up the pen everything I heard talked about writing for yourself first and foremost. At least in the first draft. Personally for me the first few drafts are like that since I fumble around a lot with what I think the story is. The other piece of advice I heard was as you revise, think of the reader.
But now it seems like more and more it’s about impressing a single person be an agent you’re querying or an editor who accepts un-agented manuscripts. Tons of information exists out there about how to write a killer first sentence, paragraph, page, or chapter. Some workshops offer the opportunity to have you work read in front of a panel of authors and editors who will raise a hand, ring a bell, squeal like a pig, whatever when they would have stopped reading. Books exist of how to write a great first 50 pages apparently forgetting most books are longer than that but again, it’s all about hooking an agent or editor.
Admittedly at this stage in my career I haven’t explored too much about the business side of writing (it will be a goal of mine for 2016). But this bugs me, it bugs me a lot. To me it sounds as if once you get to a certain point in your writing it’s a lot less about thinking of the reader and more about impressing a very small group of people. Yes, publishing is a business and of course the salability of a manuscript is an agent, editor, and publisher’s job. I also understand and greatly appreciate an editor and agent’s time is incredibly limited and valuable. After all they get inundated with hundreds to thousands of manuscripts every year. A person can’t possibly read each and every one in depth so there should be standards.
I worry this mentality is damaging to the craft itself. I wonder if the industry has always been like this or if the disturbing trend of the last decade of soundbites, 140 characters or less, too-long-didn’t-read has invaded the centuries old art of writing. If you can’t metaphorically punch an editor or agent in the face, you’re shit out of luck.
I also think this line of thinking may just be insulting to the average reader. Nowadays, because of the mergers of major publisher after major publisher, anytime a certain type of story becomes popular, publishers pop out book after book written similarly. Yet I’ve heard over and over a writer should not write to toward a trend because by the time your work is ready, the trend’s probably over. So where did they find all these people in the first place? Somebody’s gotta be writing to fit a trend.
When I think about older books, the classics, it amazes me because imagine if those manuscripts were presented today. How many would honestly get published? So many of them break the current “rules” of the trade be it shifting POV, or head-hopping, repeated words and phrases, purple prose, paragraphs that are too long, too many adjectives, too many adverbs, what have you yet those stories endure.
This is what makes me conflicted as a writer. On one hand we are to write for ourselves and for, hopefully, a readership that will be enthralled with our prose. On the other hand, if we can’t make that first line pop or paragraph or page or chapter infect an agent or editor, we may never get a chance to have a readership. But look at some of the bestsellers in the past few years. Some of them started off as self-published novels that found readership based upon the merit of the story which then got the attention of publishers.
What truly is the end game for a writer then? It’s certainly not to write for ourselves or even to entertain our reader. At this point it clearly feels as if it is more about what one person thinks of the story. And we wonder why some truly awful books become bestsellers while others languish in someone’s drawer or computer. Perhaps the focus should be once again on the writer and the reader and quality work.