Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Who do we write for?

I've participated in a lot of writers' groups and workshops over the years, wherein writers are invited to share their works-in-progress with other writers for critique.  What I've discovered is that the level of pomposity about one's work is often inversely proportional to one's talent.

I remember one man in particular, an older guy who participated in a class I was in about two years ago.  He was writing historical fiction.  He seemed to believe that adjectives and adverbs were a substitute for nouns and verbs, and that pages upon pages of scenery description should precede every action.  His work was tedious, heavy-handed, and difficult to read/understand.

This was almost universally commented upon by the class.  "Cut back on the adjectives/adverbs," we told him.  "Description is not a substitute for character or plot."  He was very resistant to our feedback.  (Naturally, he was also the kind of guy who would eviscerate other people's work without a second thought.)  Finally, he said to us, "Well, I don't think I'm going to change anything.  This is my style and I like it like that."

Which, given that this guy was a jerk and had blatantly disregarded everyone's critiques of his work--while scornfully cutting others to pieces--I said, with no small amount of disdain, "Well, then, if you don't want to revise your work based on other people's feedback, why are you even in this class?"

The guy, as I said, was a jerk.  He was snobbish and condescending, and he took the class because he wanted everyone to fawn all over him.  But the argument itself brings up an interesting question: who do we write for, ourselves or the audience?

Everyone who writes does so, first and foremost, for themselves.  I mean, we wouldn't do it if we didn't like it.  And if that's the extent of it, and you have no further interst than keeping your writing stored away in your sock drawer, than good for you.  But my belief is that, for people who want to be published, you have to take what other people think and react into consideration.

A few years ago, I interviewed Charlie Kaufman.  I love his work.  Adaptation and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, both of which he wrote, were awesome.  He had just finished his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York.  He told me then that he hadn't screened the film with focus groups, believing that movies become more cliched and generic when they're subjected to more voices.  Except, of all of Kaufman's work, I enjoyed Synedoche the least.  I kept waiting for something to happen, and it didn't.  I kept waiting for it to make sense, but it didn't.  I felt like that kid who pointed out that the Emperor was, indeed, naked.

That said, other people aren't always right, either.  I wrote a story once where there was a very violent scene at the beginning.  I describe it in fairly graphic detail.  When I read the story in a workshop, several people in the class advised me to take it out or tone it down.  I didn't.  The story is about a woman whose brother is a serial killer, and an act she watches him commit when she is a child haunts her for years; even after he is arrested, she believes that maybe she could have stopped him if only she had told someone what happened.  To tone it down would be negating the point.  The incident ravages her character.  It stayed.

I think there's a happy medium here.  You, as the author, know what story you're trying to tell.  But at the same time, I think we get a myopic view of our own work.  It's hard to see the inherent flaws and problems with our own stuff, because we're just too close to it.  I know what I wanted to say.  I like to use other people's feedback to judge how far I really am from that goal.

And sometimes, hearing feedback from other people can take you off in entirely new directions altogether.  My just-finished novel draft actually started as a piece of flash fiction.  When I brought it into the workshop to read, people bombarded me with questions about what the narrator acted the way she did and what was wrong with her.  (In their defense, she kills a guy before the story even begins, so "What's wrong with her?" wasn't an unreasonable question.)  At the time, I had no idea what was wrong with her, but my crazy brain started playing with it.  The whole story started because I was trying to answer that one question.  Crazy thing.


Phoebe Raven said...


I agree with you on the basic premise that in the beginning we always write for ourselves, even if there is some "sense of mission" attached to this (i.e. thinking we have something to say to other people).

But as soon as you let even one person read what you write, you come across the problem you describe: do you change your writing according to what other people comment about it?

I, for one, am one of those people who will seldom ever change a lot about my writing based on what others say. Sure, I may change the structure of a sentence or two, but I won't change the overall tone or insert more detail about plot (of which I rarely ever have a lot) or some such thing.

My writing tends to be cryptic and relies heavily on the flow of thoughts and mind (both of myself while writing and the reader while reading), hence I WANT everyone to come up with different answers and feelings in the end. And I leave certain gaps intentionally, because I believe the exact details aren't always what matters.

That said, if you ever want to be successful, of course you have to cater to your audience, even if your audience is highly intellectual free spirits who would never set foot into a Barnes & Noble.

I believe it's a thin red line to walk between staying true to your own voice as an artist and making your writing accessible to at least an acceptable degree.
Certainly many people have fallen to the wayside on either side of this line (i.e. over-indulging their own ego or simply selling out their vision).

Ultimately, I think every artist has to decide for themselves where the line is, and then live with the consequences (for example no success whatsoever because of an unwillingness to take readers' thoughts into consideration).

Beth Woodward said...

True enough, Phoebe. It's a very personal decision.

From what I know, and have heard, about the publishing process, it can be pretty brutal. Editors/agents will tell you to cut this, add to that, change that, etc. And it continues even after you're published and successful.

My goal right now is to get my novel to be as strong as it can be. And honestly, I don't think I can do that alone. Like I said, I think most authors--me included--tend to get a myopic view of their own work. And my long-term goal is to sell it to a publisher. So yes, I have to be concerned about audience reaction.

It's not something I have completely and absolutely figured out. Like I said, the story I read in my writing workshop a few years ago received a very mixed reaction. It might be more marketable if I toned it down. But I still don't feel it's right for the story. If my only goal were publication, wouldn't I just go with it?

Yet at the same time, I want my stories--all of them--to be the best, and the strongest, they can be. And I think sometimes that means NOT caving to what other people think.

I remember, in that Charlie Kaufman interview I mentioned, he said that focus groups and whatnot were useful for highlighting points that weren't clear, places of confusion, etc. And he's right: other readers can say, "I don't get why X did Y," and you can say, "Oh, yeah, my bad, I need to explain that." But with my fledgling novel, at this moment, I also want to hear what other people THINK about the story, areas of strengths and weaknesses, etc. Does that mean I'll change everything as they say? No. For example, you told me that you're not a huge fan of supernatural stuff. But there's a good bit of it in my story. If you came to me and said, "Cut out all the supernatural stuff, becuase I don't like it," I'd have to respectfully say no.

But, on the other hand, if you were to say, "Character X's arc is not well-developed," or "I don't think this scene is as emotionally intense as it needs to be," that's a different story.

When I critique other's work, I try to critique it for what it is--rather than what I want it to be, or how I would write it.

I've found, in my writing workshops, that other people tend to be right more often than not, at least with my stories. They can often see what I can't.

Phoebe Raven said...

Sounds to me like actual face to face writing workshops are a great thing then. I have found online writing communities to be extremely unhelpful, because most people are just there looking for praise and are truly untalented and unwilling to be constructive in their criticism or accepting of someone else's way of storytelling or their writing style.

But partly through those online comments I have come to terms with the fact that most of my writing is very non-commercial and has a very narrow target audience, and that's okay. It just wouldn't be me if it was any different. Even as a personality I am not mass-compatible, so it's no surprise my writing should be the same.

In any case, I think the decision how much and what to edit changes with every piece we write. Some might be deeply personal pieces which we write more for ourselves than anyone else, so we are less willing to compromise them.
Other pieces we write specifically for others, to entertain, to fascinate etc. And then we need to listen to what our target readers have to say more than we would with the more personal, "I just want to express a feeling" pieces we write.

Does that make any sense?

In the end, I have always more subscribed to the "l'art pour l'art" concept and have accepted that I will never become rich or widely known for my writing. I just want to touch a few people and make them feel like there is someone else out there who feels what they feel and puts it on a page for them.

Boy, have I become the cliché of a tortured artist or what? (;