Monday, December 04, 2006

Please Note

Good conversation going on in the comment section of the post titled: "An Extremely Bold Question."

The subject has evolved to WRITING FOR THE MARKET: is it damaging to art? and if not, how do we psyche out the current market requirements.

Do join in with your own view--here, or in the comment section to the earlier post.

Do you tailor your writing to what you perceive market requirements to be?


billie said...

I don't think I'm tailoring my work to the market - but it does feel like, with this recent first novel revision, that I'm tweaking it in that direction, based on comments by editors who passed and my first agent who felt it needed to be a bit more "traditional" in structure.

Lately I'm wondering about the difference between being (as a reader) manipulated by the author versus getting lost/caught up in the story.

I tend to feel manipulated by plot driven novels. I want a book to catch me up in its spell, and for me, if I can feel that underlying plot structure operating at all, I balk and the spell, if there was one, is broken.

I have to wonder if, in my own writing, I am past the point of manipulating the reader with obvious plot constructing but not quite able to cast that spell.

What is it about the books that sell wildly well, that appeal to such a mass audience they defy the categories of genre? What is it that makes them so "readable" ??

For the past six months, I've been studying story structure just to see if I can learn something new/valuable. Much of it is already in place in my work, but it's subtle, not In Your Face - and perhaps it comes down to an issue of preference wrt that.

Again, just rambling, but it feels useful (for me..:) so... thanks for generating this topic!


Peggy said...

I'm curious about your reaction to the books that sell wildly well. Do you usually or always or sometimes or never find them, as you say, "readable?"

For me, it's a mix. Lots of them are dreadful. Some are wonderful. Some seem fine but not very much different from a lot of others that don't get such avid response. I don't see the common denominator. I had lunch a few weeks ago with my agent's assistant, the wonderful Gary; he said, "it's luck." Implicit in his comment was that luck struck after the writer had reached a professional level of quality.

billie said...

I'm definitely thinking of books that fall w/in my own reading preference when I say "sell wildly well" - books like:

The Lovely Bones
Cold Mountain
The English Patient


These aren't what I consider the "normal" mainstream big sellers, and yet they did that. The writing in all of them is lovely, imo, and they absolutely cast a spell - so what is it about them that transcended what happens to so many "literary" novels?

A lot of the murder mysteries/thrillers/etc. seem to sell very well - but I don't read that genre, so I don't know how I feel about them! I have put Dennis Lehane's Mystic River on my list after several folks raved about his writing.. I haven't seen the movie, either, so - we'll see how that one hits me.

I guess what all this boils down to for me is that I don't want to change the way I write, or the kind of book I write, but I DO want to sell well when I get out there. To the degree I can prepare for that and make it likely to happen. :)

And yes, I think your agent's assistant is right to say luck has a huge role in these things.

So, a question. If you were recommending novels for writers to read to study mastery of the form, which ones would you recommend?

I am hereby naming December "Read To Learn" month for me. :)


Peggy said...

To repeat the question:
If you were recommending novels for writers to read to study mastery of the form, which ones would you recommend?

I'm staggered by the thought. I don't know because I don't read that way and perhaps should.

However, I'm on the waiting list at the library for Francine Prose's new book on reading like a writer. Maybe I'll learn how to do that.

billie said...

I don't necessarily think you should read to study the form, especially not the first read. I have gone back the past few years and re-read favorites to see if I could decipher why they worked so well.

The thing is, the ones that really knock my socks off are just so seamlessly written it's almost impossible to "study" them!

I don't try to dissect them - but I read sometimes to get a sense of the flow and how they pace the story.

Ultimately, for me, the use of language and tone is what pulls me in. Interesting characters keep me there.

But there has to be some "glue" aside from that - something that holds the entire novel together.

Or maybe I just want the easy answer. :)

I hope some of your readers will share some titles!


Anonymous said...

For a wildly sucessful book that is not driven by a linear plot I would nominate "Beloved." I wrote my MFA essay on it, and was planning to write about how Morrison managed the wildly non-linear timeline of it. My teacher that semester (Karen Brennan) said that the real secret to the structure of the novel was "voice." Having not been an English major in college, I followed her all over the Warren Wilson campus badgering her as to what "voice" was. She would screw up her face and look mysterious. It turned out to be a bear of an essay to write, but well worth it. Voice is a bit like the Holy Ghost, I think, but that is the secret to those novels you name, I also think.
I think it's true that (for good and ill) writers who are sucessful can get away with more -- they've already got their niche and readership. For a wildly non-commercial and strange book I love that also has a strong voice try Gayle Jones' Mosquito put out by Beacon Press. She took a lot of heat for that book, I don't imagine it did her career any favors, and it probably could have been shorter, but I really appreciate the risks she took there. Thanks all for continued discussion. Amey

billie said...

thanks so much, amey... I think I now have my "work" for december planned. :)

funny - many people over the years have recommended Beloved to me and I'm not sure why, but I have never gotten around to buying OR reading it. this feels like the right time.

and the other one, I will absolutely get and read - I am all for supporting the non-commercial and strange, particularly if it also has a strong voice!

so, mystic river, beloved, and mosquito... I shall read and report back.

all this aside - do you think this comes down to trusting the voice in the novel? have you discovered ways to discover/explore/enhance the novel's voice?

I am alllll ears. :) or actually, eyes, I guess this medium would need..


Peggy said...

I'll check out Mosquito, Sounds like the sort of thing I'd be interested in. And thank you for the continued discussion.

I'm not the greatest fan of Beloved. The events felt buried in language to me. At the same time, the events were so excruciating that that having a buffer helped me keep reading.

Good question about enhancing voice. I have an idea it involves not trying, that real raw original stuff comes through when the writer is just letting the story unfold and not trying to be real, raw, or original.

A corollary to that: the original stuff seems more easily recognized by others. To the one who produced it, it likely seems normal.

billie said...

Peggy, I love what you wrote about finding the original voice - and the corollary... any insights into learning to recognize one's own good writing of that real, raw voice?


Peggy said...

I can usually recognize my best work when I've let a little time pass.

I can also get some objectivity by reading a new piece out loud. That shows up problems more glaringly.

ameymiller said...

Interesting comments on Beloved, Peggy. That's where taste comes in. "buried in language" -- one person's meat, another's poison. Y'all both may well dislike Mosquito, but it may be interesting to see one woman writer go very far out to sea. There's a lot of anger in it, partly coming out in the repetitive unfriendly difficulty of it.
Re trusting voice. I agree with Peggy. Just doing it. How does one fully give oneself to ones own life/work? A major topic of this blog seems like. That relates to stuff upstream in this thread. I think it can be great to respond to editing -- viz Thomas Wolfe bringing Look Homeward Angel to Maxwell Perkins on a large dolly and Perkins "forcibly" extracting the novel from all the pages, at least that's the romance as I understand it.
Seems to me luck/karma, who(m) you know, the specificities of talent and drive and confidence, and cultural context are all inter-related and hard to prise apart. Can you embrace your own path even while not knowing how it will unfold? Another version of above question. One way that I try to remind myself of is that being famous is no panacea for angst. In an interview Neil Simon said that he feels great when a new play comes out and is sucessful for a few nano-seconds, then it's back to the anxiety of the next project. . . .

billie said...

Good points, both...

Amey, I LOVE this line:

"Can you embrace your own path even while not knowing how it will unfold?"

That pretty much sums it up.

I had a Maxwell Perkins for awhile, and it was easy to embrace my path during that amazing time, but alas, he felt he could not sell what we extracted in the current market. :/

I need to get back to the path and stop analyzing it so much. :)


Peggy said...

Amey, what do you think of V.S. Naipaul's voice? His Enigma of Arrival is one of my 2 favorite books. The whole book has the tone/feel of a digression. One of my very literate chums thinks it's the most boring book he ever read. I find it rapturously good.

ameymiller said...

I have struggled with Naipul as a know it all boychick type, but with your suggestion I'll give Enigma of Arrival a roll. As someone who adores the Rolling Stones, I'm far from purist on the macho front.

ameymiller said...

And Billie, that sounds like a painful ultimately non-Maxwell experience; I'm instantly pissed at "the market" and this non-Maxwell over it, what does he/they know??????? But it is life, and getting back on the path sounds right. Also, in terms of pursuing Dennis Lehane, you might want to look at a recent interview with him in Writers' Chronicle, if you haven't seen it already. There's a lot interesting and to like; one thing I didn't like was his assumption that his sucess = gold seal of quality ("if you build it they will come"), which in my admittedly somewhat conspiratorial worldview reads something like patriarchy to me.

billie said...

Amey, don't get me wrong - I was instantly and mightily pissed too when it happened. :)

I got a new agent immediately.

But the first experience was wonderful as it was happening, and that agent has remained a wonderful contact for me, once I got over being angry.

I'm going to check out the Dennis Lehane interview - I don't know much about him at all - have read NONE of his books.


Peggy said...

Billie, you're admirably forgiving, and that's obviously serving you well. That agent's turnabout was shocking.

On Naipaul--I find what he says in interviews to frequently be beyond obnoxious. But his books...! Astonishingly good, for the most part, I think. Good work doesn't makes a person likeable, but bad personal behavior doesn't diminish the quality of the books. For me, anyway.

billie said...

It was a rough day, the day of the turn-around.

I have to say, though, with all the agent angst, I now have 3 agents I have a "history" with, have not burned bridges with, and if I email them with a new book they respond fast and ask for the mss.

I figure that has to be better than the alternatives - presumably one of these days something will hit and the snowball will get rolling. :)

As fickle as the publishing industry seems to be, I am trying to maintain my little forays into that world with as much humanity and integrity as I can muster.

Not to say I don't have moments of supreme annoyance and anger. :)


Peggy said...

You're definitely taking the high road. And not burning bridges is extremely important.

I've only totally and flamboyantly burned one in my whole 34 years of freelancing. I don't regret that, but I'm also very glad for a lot of other moments of restraint.

billie said...

sunday morning - I'm here working on my ms and googling odd turns of phrase in hopes of finding something inspiring...

and voila - THIS.

Peggy said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Billie. This book Famous After Death sounds tailor-made for, oh, two or three people I know.

I was intrigued by the review alone. On the hunger for fame:

When we shut our eyes for a moment and listen to that tiny voice hiding in the amygdala (that's where it crouches), we'll hear its rasping command, "Stand out, stand out, stand out."

That little voice does put the pressure on.