Thursday 9 June 2011

The Writer's Holy Grail or Hand Grenade?

It’s a big wide world out there, or so they say. In that big wide world it would appear that there are thousands upon thousands of people trying to publish a novel.
I love to write. I really, really do. I find it cathartic and interesting and satisfyingly enjoyable. I feel as though I am learning how to write as I go along. The more I do it, the more coherent it becomes. The more I do it, the more pleasure I get from it. The more I do it, the more I want to do it. Not entirely unlike other activities I can think of! Except, of course, the end result is generally less sticky. Generally.
And to me writing seems to be about confluence. To paraphrase Mr Gaimen, and if my memory serves me correctly, it’s when lots of ideas and influences that have been swimming around in your head fall into place and a story is born. It is the culmination of a flow of ideas which ideally form into a congruent narrative. I remember the first time I read Neil Gaimen’s explanation of writing it was like he had described precisely the process which had been going on in my head, a process that I had found difficult to put into words (which is a poor show for a writer, but sometimes it is hard to find the language to define something that you are doing automatically.)
But here’s the thing, where is this going ultimately? Out of sheer curiosity, I looked at a Writing Agent’s website the other day, and to my surprise, what I read, was actually a little intimidating and came across as mildly insulting.
The message was clear. We are looking for BOX A, are you a female Crime Writer? Hello niche! Come closer, there is a place for you, Little Miss Novelty. BOX B, can you write Science Fiction in almost the exact same manner as Insert name of Profitable current Sci-Fi Hit here? Then we want to hear from YOU!
Did I miss something? Don’t get me wrong, business is business and money does not drop from the sky. If you want to make money from writing you have to, well, make money! But is it really so easy to determine what is considered worthy and what isn’t? Is a person’s imagination really so disposable? It’s a creative process. Surely every attempt at a story is valid? Even the really flawed attempts! Trust me, lots of people believe themselves to have a great novel within them but hardly any of those people ever put pen to paper. Ninety percent of anything is just doing it! Even the greatest artists will tell you that. It’s all very well being ridiculously talented but if you never actually produce anything, that talent is wasted. So in the first instance, does anyone really have the right to criticise someone who makes an attempt at producing something creative?
I love to read. I believe that my love of reading is the sole reason why I love to write. The two go hand in hand quite well wouldn’t you say? But here’s the thing, my favourite books are scattered across the genres and across the generations. Some of the best books that I have ever read have come completely out of left field. I love stories that are unrepentantly honest and borne out of cold, hard reality. I love stories that are witty and fantastical. I love stories that terrify me and make me think. I love stories that are heart warming, that give me hope. I love stories that are complex with twists which lead you into the unexpected. Basically, I love to read anything that I take something from. Whether it gives me perspective, or a giggle, or just a moment of connection, all of these things are valid to me. The very thought of a piece of writing that may touch me being rejected because the author has sent it in the wrong format, or it does not fall in line with the Agent’s specific tastes (which are, according to the blurb on that website, oddly narrow for a fans of literature) actually dismays me. I have often heard people in the field remark that Tolkien, were he to submit his works in this day and age, would not get published. This thought leaves me with a rather cold feeling. Whatever flaws may be perceived in his writing style, is it really acceptable to think that one of the greatest writers this country has ever produced (in my opinion the greatest Fantasy writer across the board) would be rejected due to the constrictions of the current system?
Would I like to be published? That is the pertinent question that I’m brushing against and around and generally avoiding...
The answer is basically both Yes and No.
Yes because I want the time to write. I am learning to write. There are so many barriers to overcome. The first barrier was actually literally writing something down. The next hurdle was getting over the embarrassment of putting something out there to either be shot down or adored. Whatever the outcome, it was a risk. It continues to be a risk with everything that I write. But a couple of short stories and a pile of meanders of thought (as I like to call them, mini essays I suppose they are really) does not a writer make! There is so much to learn. I’m trying to learn how to take all of these ideas, plots and characters and bring them into being, letting go of the idea that people will assume that it’s always me behind that thought, behind that character’s actions, and judge ME accordingly. By the same token I’m trying to learn how to access the more distressing and deeply personal aspects of my life experience and apply them to my writing, without causing actual upset within my own head in the process. I know that there is power in those emotions and concepts, love and hate and death and sex and all the delicate shades of emotion and expression in between. I know that is how you connect with people, but how do you achieve this without feeling as though you’ve laid your bare soul open for scrutiny? You see, I have a long way to go before this journey is over, yet I’m excited at the prospect and I’m enjoying it.
But I get distracted by, you name it, everything! My partner, family and friends, work and money, cleaning, so on and so forth until the end of time. Living, basically, I get distracted by living. And many of these aspects of my life take priority, especially anything concerning my loved ones as they are downright essential to me. The only possible distraction I could cut out, were it not for the financial aspect, would be work. Hence, the writing for a living bit. Can you imagine it? All of those daylight hours when everyone else is beetling away at their place work, free to just write. Just do this. How unbelievably fucking awesome would that be? For writing to be a self perpetuating, self funding activity? That’s a good enough reason for any writer to want to be published!
Also, I suppose there is the validation element. No matter how humble or introverted you are I defy anybody not to have the desire to have their thoughts, their intelligence essentially, recognised and respected by others. Otherwise you feel a bit like you are just sort of babbling away in the corner. You feel as though you may as well be putting ink dots on a page without some sort of acknowledgement that what you are doing is credible.
No because I’m concerned that I would have to adapt my thoughts and ideas into a marketable package of someone else’s design. The joy of writing, for me, comes from expressing my own thoughts and ideas, theories and observations. Like it or loathe it, I want my work to be out there, standing on its own merits. If I don’t fulfil a niche or tick a box, what does it matter? Why should it matter? Should publishers and agents really have this kind of all encompassing power over what literature can be deemed suitable for our reading pleasure?
I would imagine their argument to be something along the lines of, they receive so many submissions that they have to draw boundaries somewhere else they would never be able to make a decision, nor move for the amount of sample chapters being pushed through their letterbox. Plus these are the people who have to make the tough decisions about what is saleable and what isn’t. I suppose their M.O. is based on years on experience, and given the sheer volume of material they must receive it is a natural that a certain amount of cynicism will develop. Not every piece of writing can be considered publishable I guess, but then, some published work I’ve read really is quite appalling, whereas many unpublished novels I’ve read (that have actually been submitted for publication and turned down) are awesome. My concern is that works by some truly talented people have been overlooked in favour of what is considered to be fashionable at the time. This is real shame, because we (the readers) are the ones missing out in the end.
So the question becomes, if it came to it, would I be willing to make compromises in an attempt to get published?
If I actually stop to think for a moment... this is a moot point! To what great work of fiction am I referring? The one I have not even written yet? Don’t get me wrong, it is a good idea to consider these issues early on, rather than carry on in ignorance until confronted with a choice. But that said, I do not think it wise to get so wholly bogged down in a moral quandary just yet. I need to actually produce something first, something real. Not just a meander or a snippet or a snapshot. So here’s the conclusion. This is neither a cop-out nor a concession, but a necessary hesitation...
I will just write
… Sounds like a plan to me!

1 comment:

  1. I write to tell stories and to shut up the characters who clamour in my head (particularly that damned French playwright and his interminable egotrip) but I would be lying if I didn't admit that it would be lovely to get something published and I wonder if it is because I seek validation thanks to the lack of it in my earlier life? That moment when somebody totally removed recognises something of value in your work must be wonderful but at the same time, the publication game is getting harder and harder and no publishing deal certainly doesn't mean a work is valueless, far from it, and vice versa. Before I even think about publication I need to toughen up and accept that I will be rejected and that it isn't a personal insult but for now, I'll concentrate on the stories. After all, how else am I going to shut up the French playwright?