Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Choices Writers Make

When I first started writing, every day was a huge adventure. My story simply spilled itself across the page, dragging me with it. Sometimes we ran with glee, at other times we found ourselves slogging up seemingly impossible rocky crags. I didn’t know what I was doing but I was having fun. I was writing by instinct rather than intellect.

But the more I wrote, the more I learned. I began to realize how many choices a writer could consciously make—decisions not only about the direction a story will take, but about point of view, characterization, style, pacing, chapter length, and on and on and on. The more I learned, the better writer I became. Yes, something was lost—the spontaneity, perhaps even some of the energy. But I am a much better writer today than I was twenty years ago.

This is why I think there is value in looking at what makes a bestseller vs. what condemns a book to midlistdom. It’s all about educating ourselves as writers, about making informed choices. If a writer has a certain story she desperately wants to tell and a certain way she wants to tell it, than I think it would be a shame if commercial considerations corrupted that process. But if I can make choices that in no way compromise my integrity as a writer while considerably boosting my book’s sales, then I want to know what those choices are. Hence my interest in what sells and what doesn’t.

I have this theory that the more an author is naturally in tune with the Great American Majority (GAM), the better his or her books will sell. This is a rather discouraging theory since I am not very much in tune with the GAM. I’ve lived huge chunks of my life abroad. Not only has this left me with a radically different worldview, but it’s also left embarrassing holes in my knowledge of Americana. I still remember the looks I received when, visiting the States, I had to ask, “Who’s Oprah?” and “Who is this Martha Stewart woman?” I still don’t watch much television. I hate FRIENDS and SEX IN THE CITY. I was one of the 8% of Americans who thought going to war against Iraq was a huge mistake that would lead to civil war, the rise to power of the Shiites, and the radicalization of the Middle East. In other words, very out of touch with the GAM.

This means I can’t simply trust my instincts when it comes to making writing choices. What I like isn’t necessarily what other people like. My fantasies aren’t necessarily the GAM’s fantasies, and their fears aren’t my fears. It is therefore very easy for me to inadvertently make choices that work against my books’ success.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not about to write a book about a Rambo-type American hero who saves the world from crazy Arab terrorists. And as much as I’d love to have Dan Brown’s money, I would be mortally embarrassed to have written his books (all those historical gaffs!). But I don’t have a problem with making my chapters shorter. I can write cliffhanger endings. I can simplify my language—my prose does not sing so gloriously that the world will be losing something wonderful. And I can analyze my characters to try to make them into the kind of people with the kind of problems the GAM and I can both relate to.

Discovering these secrets leads me to think, Okay, what else am I missing? Steve Malley mentioned how TDC flattered its readers by letting them feel smug when they figured out the very obvious answers before the “genius experts.” My sister, the author Penelope Williamson, also mentioned this aspect of the book as a piece of its success. I just saw it as more clumsy writing (like I said, I can be clueless.)

I know this all sounds so clinical and calculating. But take heart. Last Monday, my writers’ group compared two bestselling books with two similar midlist books, and we found the exercise both fascinating and encouraging. Yes, the bestsellers we chose were not only commercially successful but also good books. But the lessons we learned from the exercise were incredible, and I’ll talk about them next time.

How’s that for a cliffhanger ending?


Steve Malley said...

Great cliffhanger!

'When I started, a punch was just a punch, and a kick was just a kick.

'As I got better, I learned technique. There was no longer such a thing as a simple punch or kick.

'Now, a punch is just a punch. And a kick is just a kick.'

--Bruce Lee

Every part of our voices worth keeping will survive improved technique and the ability to make technical choices. If it doesn't, it deserves to die.

(Even that's a paraphrase of NC Wyeth. No original thoughts for me this Easter...)

Happy Easter!

Kate S said...

Great, thought provoking posts and replies on this subject the past few days. I'd never considered the "smug" aspect. Interesting.