Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Everybody's Talking

by Sheila Connolly

Sandy's still recuperating, but she'll be back on Wednesdays by next week.

Time was, writers huddled in freezing garrets, scribbling with a quill pen, a lead pencil, or, later, pounding on a manual typewriter. They were solitary creatures, listening only to the voices in their heads (when they weren’t out working at menial jobs to support their creative habit) and trying to set the words down on paper. There was, of course, only one copy originally, or maybe a smudgy carbon copy or two once the mechanical device came along. This soon-tattered document circulated amongst editors and publishers, one at a time, gathering coffee-stains and dog-ears along the way, until it was judged too pathetic and the poor writer had to laboriously reproduce it.

I grew up with the oft-repeated tale from my parents, that when they were first married and living in New York City, they lived in the same building as A Writer (this was said in reverent tones). As I recall, it was Robert Ruark, who enjoyed some small fame in the 1950s and 1960s. Maybe he actually lived in the building, or maybe it was his New York pied a terre—it doesn’t really matter. What I remember is the attitude my parents held toward their neighbor, even though I don’t think they ever exchanged a word with him. He was A Writer; he was Special.

Writers were for centuries mysterious, enigmatic figures. But that’s not true any more, because, thanks largely to the Internet, we all know each other now, or at least, know of each other. What’s more, we all communicate with each other. A lot. We blog together, we email each other, we follow each other from list to list. There are no secrets any more.

This is a mixed blessing. On the plus side, we have a terrific support network—people who know what we’re going through and can commiserate about our rejections and celebrate our successes with us. We also pool agent, editor and publisher information (which I’m not sure those people have quite figured out yet, but that’s fine). Most of us who have books in print know that publishing houses dole out details with a small spoon. We have to fight to find out how many books we’ve sold, how many returns there have been, how our paper darlings are performing when compared to the rest of the herd. So to be able to compare notes with our peers; to get a glimpse into what “success” is; and to be able to cheer for a struggling newcomer, is wonderful and immensely helpful to us all, wherever we are in our career path.

But the easy availability of information also has a downside, or at least a potential one.

We all know the rules: grab the reader up front with a strong hook; if you’re writing mysteries, put the body in the first chapter; avoid backstory at all costs; show, don’t tell; end each chapter with a hook; end the book with another hook so the reader will want to buy the next book in the series. And so on. We all participate in the same online classes, for plotting, building characters, constructing the hero’s story arc. We all know which books on writing are recommended—and there are plenty of them. We all know which blogs to follow for insider information. We all know which agents are hot, and which publishers are cutting lines. In other words, we all know too much.

One of the things we know is that agents—the gatekeepers to publication—reject 98 per cent of the submissions they receive because they don’t stand out. They may be in the correct form and format, they may be competently written, polite and businesslike—but they’re all saying the same thing. Paragraph 1: please consider my time travel romantic suspense, complete at 102,000 words. Paragraph 2: Voluptuous Jane meets Hunky John on a space platform somewhere in time and they fall instantly in love. Unfortunately they both lose each other’s temporal spatial coordinates (for 287 pages). Will these star-crossed (star-crossing?) lovers find each other again without disrupting the time-space continuum? Paragraph 3: Eager writer is uniquely qualified to write this book because s/he has extensive experience in time travel, love, and IPS (that’s Intergalactic Position Systems).

And this is the norm. The swamped agent eyeballs the email query and hits delete in a nanosecond, because she’s seen it literally thousands of times before.

In short, we’ve homogenized writing. Are we better or worse off than we were when we writers labored in isolation? Or, are the books that do make it into print better or worse? We’d love to hear your opinions.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Lively blog, Sheila, but I don't believe all is lost quite yet.
There are plenty of lonely writers out there sending agent queries that say, "I know my book will be a surefire bestseller." And remember there are proverbially only seven original plots. What distinguishes one manuscript from the next is voice. Writing within a limited structure isn't new: a sonnet has only 16 lines and two choices of rhyme scheme, but that didn't stop Shakespeare. And in spite of the millions of readers and writers who've studied them, no one's work has come up exactly like them.

E. B. Davis said...

I agree with Liz, but as an unpublished writer I have a few more comments (read frustrations). When there is so much communication, whatever successfully published authors say becomes law. For example, if any of my characters happens to "mutter" or "exclaim," it's edited to "said", because Sue Grafton says that writing anything else is distracting to the reader. No wonder all of our ms look the same. No prologues, please! Even though M. C. Beaton's latest starts with a prologue. I know she can get away with it because she's had 100 or so books published. It's not all writers, agents blog about this stuff too, so they create the very uncreative uniform scripts they have to read. Being conventional seems to have overtaken creativity. But then, when the fat lady sings, I think don't think that it's because of all this small stuff, it's voice, unique characters, situations and plots. Yes, all the same 7 deadly sins, but a variety of ways to portray them.

Mare F said...

I've read some of Robert Ruark's books and recently picked up a copy of The Honey Badger for a friend. LOL. I understand the reverence. I believe that some authors have participated, or peeked in on some reading group discussions of their books and found a different take on what they have written. They are now able to really hear what a large number of readers think of what they've already written and what the readers would like to see. I would hope that this would be an advantage to an author hoping to continue a series. I know I enjoy the access to the authors I'm lucky enough to chat with online.

Carol Kilgore said...

I agree with Elizabeth and E.B. Within this current framework that's been created for us, I think it comes down to voice for the most part followed by unique characters and situations. How these characters cope with their situations becomes plot.

Susan said...

I don't blame the agents - entirely. They are in business to make money, and to do so they have to rep what they believe the publishers will buy.

I believe the majority of blame falls with the publishers - primarily the big NYC fellows. It used to be, when the industry was run by people who loved books, that there was a lot more variety in storyline/voice/whatever choices. They were much more willing to take a chance on something that was new and/or unproven. (Sort of like the epubs today, but there isn't any real money there yet, except in erotica.)

Now the publishing industry is run by the beancounters, and they don't want anything that isn't a proven success or the thing that is guaranteed to be the next big success. Anything experimental or different or niche readership is given a pass.

They are selling books just like they sell shoes or widgets or cars. "Model 46 is doing great - let's do it in orange and purple and green versions, too." And so there is a deadly, stagnating homogeny now in publishing that, unless it turns around, will eventually turn the industry into a great lump of dry rot.

Of course, the publishers want to make money too, so they are banking only on 'sure things,' even as they lament the drying up of the market. What they don't seem to realize is that by doing so they are causing the shrinking market by alienating a large chunk of readers who do not want the current 'sure thing.' These potential readers want choice, and in their quest for guaranteed profits, the publishers are ignoring them.

Whatever we think about the situation, though, there's one thing that's for sure - before too long it will have to change. Good, bad or indifferent, but change.

Julia Buckley said...

Really great writing does get published, but so does a lot of formulaic pap.

I think that many writers still find joy in writing, and that the best books start when a writer is telling a story to herself.

Sheila Connolly said...

Let's hope the life isn't sucked out of writing yet, Liz! And isn't it a joy when you come upon something that really is fresh? I've recently read both of S.J. Bolton's earlier books (there's a third one out this week) and was blown away--and thrilled that I still could be.

EB, there seems to be a rule for everything, which is frightening. That's one reason I shy away from "how-to" books about writing. They all sound convincing while you're reading, but how can they all be right? And how can you follow all of them at once?

Yes, publishers are business-people (oh, for the days when a courtly gentleman editor in a bespoke suit would take the shabby writer out to a fabulous three-martini lunch in New York!), and their efforts to replicate one success sometimes verge on the ridiculous. Likewise, finding the Next New Thing goes farther and farther out--I'm afraid to find out that there will be a series about worm-farming soon. Or is it worm-ranching?

But let's hang on to the joy of writing (without trying to please everyone else), and relish the exceptions when we find them.

Vicki Lane said...

Good post, Sheila! I think I agree with Liz -- voice is everything.

Writing mystery is almost as limiting a structure as writing a sonnet -- the crime, the suspects, the sleuth. I remembering cringing inwardly when I realized that I was providing my amateur sleuth with a cop boyfriend (as so many have done) just because it was going to be necessary for her to have some inside cop info.

And E.B.'s lament about homogenized rules -- I agree here too. Just because Elizabeth George hates adverbs doesn't mean they are off limits to everyone. Ditto with prologues. Write well and you can break all the rules you want.

I wouldn't want to go back to the lonely garret days. And if the easy exchange of ideas contributes a bit to homogenization, the almost infinite amount of information available expands our horizons immeasurably.

And as several have mentioned -- more and more it's the publishers who are looking for a sure thing.

jenny milchman said...

I love unusual, non-formulaic novels, whatever the genre, and would hope that publishers recognize one of these even when it doesn't sit snugly on a shelf of like volumes. The writing rule that's most likely to produce a work authentic to a particular writer's voice is: There are no rules.

That's not to say there isn't basic and advanced craft to master--there is, and doing so is the work of a career. But where a writer departs from the paradigms is when a book really begins to sing, imo.

Sandra Parshall said...

I agree that voice is everything and that too many pressures from too many sides conspire to smother original voices. Most of us who write have had critique partners who tried to mold our writing to fit their own ideas, their own voice. We get some version of that from all directions -- including from editors. You have to be strong and believe in your voice and your vision and your message.

Thanks for filling in for me, Sheila, while I got through the first couple weeks after knee surgery. I look forward to being back regularly, starting next week.

Drmstream said...

There's a lot of different kinds of writing and a lot of different types of readers. In some respect, we're recovering some of the personal quality of writing, before mass distribution, where people who told stories told them to small groups of people. Those stories were passed along, tellers travelled from place to place. The storyteller served a critical role in society.

Today, the opening of the tools of publishing and distribution allows writers of determination and merit to develop communities. For some, from those communities an audience can grow.

The challenge on the web is finding a form that requires craft and encourages art. That is hard and uncharted.

It's always been a challenge to make money from writing. A few writers make big bucks and evryone else fights over the scraps. But they write. It is what try need to do.

Jason Black said...

So you're saying that the ability to share our tribal wisdom and experience (and the ease with which we now do it) means that we have homogenized writing?

No offense, but that's poppycock, I say!

By that logic, since medical training has been standardized, we shouldn't have specialists.

Or, because engineering schools all teach from the same store of math/physics/chemistry knowledge, we shouldn't have the wild proliferation of new designs and technologies we now enjoy (or endure, as may be your perspective).

And yet, we do have dermatologists, neurologists, cardiologists, and more medical specialties than I could possibly name. We have more medical breakthroughs and advances per year today than at any time in history (whether those are actually made available to the public is a different story, but still). We do have this astonishing proliferation of creativity in the sciences, somehow mysteriously arising from this standardized, supposedly homogenizing tendency and ability to easily share information and learn from each other's work.

Sharing BREEDS creativity. Of course sharing also leads to shared culture, which leads to trends. There is always a "middle of the pack." But through sharing the whole is made so much larger and overall more diverse that homogenity is no real concern.

The greater danger, I would argue, lies in holing up in your cloister to write in solitude. Isolation brings, for all but the most rare and gifted of artists, stagnation and repetition. Homogenity writ small.

The more we learn from each other, the better we all become. But 'better' does not have to mean 'same.'

I blogged the counter-argument to this some while back, which anyone who's interested can find here: