Friday, September 19, 2008

Artistic Anguish

Many writers say you have to write every day.

That's BS.

"Write when you can" is a good rule of thumb for newbie writers trying to break in, or those who have busy lives and need to micro-manage their time.

My personal motto is: "Write before it's due."

I don't believe in muses, any more than I believe in writer's block. I heard a fellow writer once say, "No one ever gets farmer's block." I agree. If your job is to be creative, performing on cue is a must.

And please don't overplay your own importance.

A famous writer once said, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

She didn't ask for comments, but I'd offer, "Being trapped in a burning car seems a bit worse."

Writers tend to do two things really well: whine and inflate their own importance.

Who was that famous guy who spent an entire day anguishing over a semi-colon placement? Am I the only one who thinks this is ridiculous? And we're supposed to look up to him as some sort of ideal for artistic integrity?

Tell you what--spend two minutes fretting over the punctuation mark, then spend the other eight hours of the day volunteering at a soup kitchen. Then you'll have my admiration.

Writing IS NOT HARD. Laying bricks is hard. Curing disease is hard. Fighting in a war is hard.

Writing is sitting on your butt and stringing words together.

And what's with these writers who think all they have to do is write? They really, truly believe it is a publisher's job to sell the books, and all they have to do is turn in a decent manuscript.

Look, I'm the first person to admit that self-promotion is expensive, exhausting, time-consuming, and difficult. I'd much rather sit in my house and write books instead of doing all the travelling, lecturing, signing, and Internet busywork that currently occupies most of my professional life.

But name any other job that is 100% fun. Tell me who loves every second of their 9 to 5 day.

Imagine an executive saying, "It's not my job to take meetings" or a chef who insists "I won't cook vegetables."

Here's a shout out to all of my writing peers: We're entertainers. We're the folks who tap dance on the street corner for money. We should consider ourselves lucky to have this job, and be willing to do whatever we can to keep this job.

Save the drama for that journal your kids will throw away when you die, and realize how good you really have it.

And the next time you think that writing is hard, or that you don't want to self-promote, or that your precious words are the most important objects in the world, gimme a holler. I'll stop by with some matches and a can of lighter fluid and I'll help you readjust your priorities.

116 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm kind of conflicted about this post.

On one hand, there are far too many authors who whine about not being as popular or wealthy as they think they should be, yet do nothing themselves to promote their books. Sounds like a topic for their therapists, not their blogs. So I'm with you on that.

On the other, I've read far too many books this year that were "written before they were due" and read like it. The book was finished. Not edited, or polished, or even good, in my opinion. But the author sat down, typed 400 pages, called it finished, promoted the hell out of it, and it sold. Maybe it's just me, but I'd rather read a really good book that stands on its own than read a half-assed one that comes with a cheap air freshener or dog grooming vacuum attachment, etc.

Promoting a book? Important. But what good is promotion if the product you have to sell is mediocre at best? How do you strike the balance there?

Heather Harper said...

"Many writers say you have to write everyday.

That's BS."

As the mother of three little ones, thank you for that. I'd like to be productive every day, but I no longer guilt myself into misery when I am unable.

Rafe McGregor said...

Ditto what Heather said, Joe. You're the first successful author I've ever seen to state that. With the best will in the world, it just isn't practical for many writers to put finger to keyboard every day and while it's no doubt ideal, I don't think it's a necessity. I'm also glad to read your comments on writer's block AKA lack of concentration, willpower, or both.

Jenna said...

I agree with you for the most part!

However, on the writing every day thing, I think it's a good idea. Humans are creatures of habit. If we're writers, but in the habit of not writing, then very little gets written.

I have 3 jobs, volunteer at an animal shelter, and I'm trying to go back to school. I'm busy as hell, but I'm also in a group novel-writing class. My next scheduled day off is Oct 31st. Today is Sept 19th. In other words, I don't get time off. Some days start at 6:45 am and end at 1:30 am the next morning. Very exhausting.

But I write every day. For about a half hour, or more if I can. I squeeze it in between my bowl of cereal and getting on my bicycle to go to job #1. And you know, I've got over 10k words in just a few weeks. Not so bad!

I know we're all busy, but writing every day doesn't have to be an 8-hour epic every day. But every little bit helps, and it also starts to build good habits.

Besides, I want my kids to realize that taking time for your art is important. So, for at least a half hour mommy writes. They draw, write, or whatever creative thing that they want to do for that same time. It brings us closer together, and i get things done.

Writer Dad said...

Amen, hallelujah, word.

Farmers block. No kidding.

Anonymous said...

I agree, for the most part, but I do see value in advising beginning writers to write every day. Part of the process, an important part, is time management, and learning to carve writing time out of an already-busy day is an important skill to learn.

Granted, there are days when you will not be able to write, but a regular, disciplined schedule is, for most people, a worthwhile goal.

Writing habits vary, productivity rates vary, BOOKS differ. It's a lot easier to write a fast-paced, 270-page adventure quickly than a 500-page historical novel or a 700-page epic fantasy. Most peole whose work requires a long haul need to make a writing schedule and keep to it.

ec

liz fenwick said...

What do people call writing everyday? 2000 words, 500 words, 100 words, the grocery list???? Writing takes places in the mind then comes out via pen or 'puter. It is a compulsion but the so is living...don't do it if it doesn't compel you to think about writing all the time - come on confess you do.......

Chad Aaron Sayban said...

Very true and very well said.

Gayle Carline said...

I agree with Liz. I don't sit at the computer and pound out words every day. But I do write all the time, in my head. Maybe I observe a person or place or conversation that would make a good scene in my book. Maybe I've got a bunch of notes about an article, but I'm not sure how to put them into focus. I let the ideas swirl about in my head before I can put my fingers to the keyboard.

As to writer's block? It's just another term for 'now this job is actually brain work, so I don't want to do it.'

Adrian said...

I don't disagree with the points about writer's being too self-important, but I take issue with some of your statements.

JAK: "Many writers say you have to write everyday."

Many writers (or at least wannabe writers) have to write everyday, or they'd never finish a manuscript. I'm one of them. There's nothing wrong with writing every day. I'm not saying that it should be at the cost of self-promotion or anything else.

JAK: "If your job is to be creative, performing on cue is a must."

Writing every day keeps you limber so that you can perform on cue. Dancers and singers rehearse, even when they don't have a show.

As someone who wrote many books before making it, you should recognize how writing improves mostly through practice.

JAK: "Writing IS NOT HARD."

Writing dreck is not hard. Writing something GOOD is hard -- at least for many writers.

wkos6295 said...

hahaha hilarious. just released my first book LOATHING LOLA in aus and am doing the publicity circuit + uni + writing, driving me insane, but you gotta do it :)

and the semi-colon drama queen was oscar wilde.

MontiLee Stormer said...

Well said, Adrian.

I do write every day, in fact my prime writing period is between 2-4 in the morning, when the animals and husband are asleep. I find when I write everyday, I actually *speak better*, I'm faster in thought, and when I get commissioned for a project, I have no problem getting the ideas together and getting started. My brain is limber and that's where the words live.

I find when I don't write everyday, it get harder to get up at 2am to get the words out. I put it off and when I find the time, what I write is like the rusty water from a faucet that hasn't been used over a season. It takes longer to get going, and at 2:30 - time is a premium.

I like the routine because it will become my full-time job and I will take it seriously, like I've taken seriously every job I've ever had.

Yes I agree that some things come when their due - the right flash of inspiration, that "a-ha moment" where it all falls into place - but the notations and scribbles that came before it, some of those have flashes of brilliance, too. There might be gold flecks in that rusty water.

I'm coming across notes for a novel that at the time were just brainstorming exercises to keep muy mind on the story, but the notes fit in other parts of the story where six months ago their original placement would have been ridiculous.

You said, "Writing is sitting on your butt and stringing words together."

I see that mentality a lot in published works and that's a problem.

If that's how you want deprecate what you do for a living, fine, but some of us take what we do and how we do it, seriously - from the time we brainstorm onto notecards until we're double-checking our commas in the final edit.

It doesn't make sense to spend all of time promoting something that isn't worth reading.

Chris Roerden said...

Hi Joe - this is a request for permission to quote you (again)

In case the email address I have for you has changed since our 2005 correspondence, I'm posting this here to be sure I reach you.

There's a passage in your Newbie's Guide to Publishing that I'd like to quote, beginning "after a million written words and over four hundred rejections...." and ending "hugely very unfortunately bad."

As for your credit line, I'd like you to write it and name your latest book or your blog or both.

The quote would appear on a page of its own at the beginning of Don't Sabotage Your Submission, which is the all-genre edition of the book you already know about, Don't Murder Your Mystery (Agatha winner; Anthony & Macavity finalist).

This quote will be in addition to what I already say (now in both of my books) about the effectiveness of your use in WHISKEY SOUR of first and third person and present and past tense.

Regards,
Chris

Chris Roerden, croerden@aol.com

Anonymous said...

You're making a worthwhile point, but you're setting up a false comparison. Just because X is harder to do than Y, like holding your hand in an open flame is harder than running a 5k, doesn't mean that Y isn't hard to do. Maybe they're both hard to do.

Anyway, writing may not be hard, but good writing is. If it weren't, more of us would be Twain and fewer of us Konrath.

Jenna said...

@Liz

Writing every day for me can be writing 1 word, 100 words or 5000. It could be researching a character name, asking questions about a character's relationship with his sister, taking notes, brainstorming, editing, or a combination of all.

I constantly do research that I don't include in my writing time, mental notes, listening in on conversations, reading books or news articles, or generally living and running into ideas everywhere.

What I try to do is spend at least 30 minutes set aside for the purpose of furthering my story, or actually putting in work. That may be writing prose or jotting down premises and character sketches. It might be outlining, but the point is to spend a little time each day making a project move forward.

But, I admit I never stop thinking about my stories. I make my half hour count because I'm thinking about it and working it out all the time!

WayneThomasBatson said...

Hi, Joe

I think what you're talking about is perspective and pomp being possible enemies to a writer.

From one perspective, writing a mystery novel (or fantasy novel) is not hard like laying bricks or finding a cure for cancer is hard.

And I really appreciate the respect going out to someone who spends hours manning a soup kitchen. There are people in life who are WAY underappreciated. Taking ourselves too seriously, walking around, putting on airs as if being a writer entitles us to...well anything above anyone else is just plain foolish.

Writing, however, is hard in its own way. I found it especially hard to meet deadlines (5 books in 3.5 years) while teaching middle school full time and being a husband and a father of four. That was hard.

Like you said, write when you can--that's all I could do. Most nights I couldn't really go at it until after 9-10pm. Then the vicious cycle of missing sleep, declining health, etc. starts to fire up.

Thing is, I love writing. I feel like God wants me to tell stories and hopefully have an impact on lives. So, I'll keep going.

And at the same time, hopefully I'll never take myself too seriously or lose sight of people who deserve credit.

Anonymous said...

Dang, Joe, this is cranky even for you. Did you post this before you had coffee this morning?

Jude Hardin said...

Chuck Palahniuk used to shave his head between the first and second draft, to remind himself that none of his work was too good for the chopping block.

I shave my head every day. :)

But bring over the matches and lighter fluid anyway, Joe. I'll grill us some steaks.

Debbi said...

Amen, brother.

Muses are crap. Writer's block is an excuse. Writing is work. Some days are harder than others--deal with it.

And anyone who can make a living writing fiction has absolutely no right to whine about it.

JA Konrath said...

If it weren't, more of us would be Twain and fewer of us Konrath.

Or maybe more of us would be Konrath, and fewer of us would be anonymous cowards.

FYI--if the last great author you can think of is Twain, find Sherman and set the WayBack Machine to a hundred years ago, because these days the writing is a wee bit different.

JA Konrath said...

Dang, Joe, this is cranky even for you. Did you post this before you had coffee this morning?

Simple math. Cranky = more comments, which is more interesting.

B. said...

From a guy who has published 4 books (all mainstream publishers, all of which earned out their advances) and 150 articles (for money, not simple satisfaction) in 8 years, and never suffered a moment of writer's block -- finally! Thank you for saying this. I completely agree. The constant references to writer's block among writers is nauseatingly solipsistic.

Anonymous said...

You mean "every day."

"Everyday" is an adjective meaning "ordinary."

twistedchick said...

It was Oscar Wilde who spent the morning taking out a comma and the afternoon putting it back -- and he said that as a joke, as a reply to an artist who was complaining about how hard art was. So, not meant seriously at all.

Writing every day is fine; I do that. But I don't write fiction every day; I write nonfiction, news commentary, and it can be difficult to move from the place in my mind where I'm writing about current events and the place where I'm writing fiction about fictional people who have nothing to do with current events or, sometimes, this century. Not defeating-cancer difficult, but digging-ditches-when-it's-muddy-and-the-dirt-keeps-sliding-back-in difficult (yes, I have done that.) So writing whatever comes out on those days does not help me and does not help the story, because what comes out is worthless and is going to be deleted first thing when I sit down with my head in the right place. (I'm not saying this is binary; I'm giving you the extremes, and one of them for me is nonfiction mind. I spent 15 years as a reporter and editor, so it's pretty ingrained. There are also days that are neutral, in the middle, and writing works just fine then.)

And, like Anonymous, I'd rather write and read something that's good rather than something that's just done when it's due.

JA Konrath said...

Some of these comments remind me of an art contest years ago, where a watercolor won and was declared a masterpiece by the esteemed panel of expert judges.

The watercolor turned out to be painted by a school girl playing around with paint.

Art is in the eye of the beholder, and I find anguishing over art to be self-important. As long as you find more people who like your writing than don't, and as long as you can make some money, you're doing something right.

If you're in this biz to find praise and recognition for your hard work and angst, that says more about the writer than the writing. The writing is subjective. Always has been, always will be.

R.J. Mangahas said...

I think you're full of hot air, Joe!!! ;)

Seriously, I agree with a lot of these points. I think it's great if you make a living as a writer, but I've seen authors who have inflated their own self importance to the point you would think their curing the world of cancer. Anyway, good stuff once again.

A famous writer once said, "There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you."

I think being shot (unless it kills you instantly) would be pretty agonizing too.

Stacey Cochran said...

I wrote ten novels over the course of about eight years... most of them I worked on daily (or at least every couple of days).

I received over 2,000 rejections. None of the novels have been traditionally published. I have no literary agent.

On my most recent novel -- #11 -- I have written about 40,000 words in 14 months.

"Anguished" isn't the word I'd use because it sounds self-important. But what I've been doing ain't too far out of the neighborhood of "anguish."

I'd call it making damn sure I've got every scene where I want it to be (terror-wise, character-wise, emotion-wise, plot-wise, etc.) before moving on.

This has been an emotionally difficult novel to write, but that emotion probably would have been there whether I was writing or not.

Is that whining?

Jude Hardin said...

Some of these comments remind me of an art contest years ago, where a watercolor won and was declared a masterpiece by the esteemed panel of expert judges.

The watercolor turned out to be painted by a school girl playing around with paint.


Are you sure that really happened? I think that was the plot of a Brady Bunch episode or something. ;)

As long as you find more people who like your writing than don't, and as long as you can make some money, you're doing something right.

See, all that's subjective too. What percentage of people? How much money? Do some opinions carry more weight than others? Am I doing something right if I get a $1000 advance and sell 500 copies? Am I doing something wrong if I only make it to #37 on the NYT bestseller list? Am I doing something right if PW and Kirkus give me crappy reviews, but Amazon customers Bob, Jill, and Rhizwan say I'm, like, the best writer ever!

I agree with a lot of your points, Joe, but I think we need to feel like we're doing something a little more than tap dancing for change. Otherwise, why bother?

Sure, the first order of business is entertainment, but I think some art rises above that and makes an enduring statement about the human condition. That's all we can really hope to accomplish, and I don't think it's self-important to strive for that.

JA Konrath said...

You raise some good points, Jude. But the fact is: "humanity" as a single entity can't decide what makes enduring statements about the human condition.

Too many artists that we revere were unsuccessful while they lived. Too many successful artists are now unknown.

It always comes down to individual opinion. Are we to let the scholars decide what's worthy? The literati? The masses? The critics?

Is it about big advances? Big print runs? Awards?

Ultimately, people decide what they like on a one-on-one book-by-book basis.

So sure you can strive to write something enduring. Something with meaning. Something that resonates.

But the artist doesn't decide what is worthy. Only the readers can decide.

Jude Hardin said...

But the artist doesn't decide what is worthy. Only the readers can decide.

True enough. But as we spend weeks or months or a year or more producing a novel in isolation, I think we need to feel a greater sense of purpose than maybe if I'm lucky this will pay for a few trips to the grocery store. I think we need to feel that we're somehow contributing to the uniquely human tradition of storytelling, adding our little bit to a grand canon that probably started with grunts and gestures and eventually evolved to...insert name of favorite author here.

Of course we're not curing cancer. We're not even producing what any sane pragmatist would consider to be useful. What we are doing, I think, when we do it right, is nourishing our own souls; and, if we're lucky, the souls of a few others along the way.

When you get down to it, that's all we can hope to do.

Lynn Price said...

I think it only fair to warn you that I'm looking into the cloning option a bit more closely. I need approximately fifty of you for my Summer and Fall lineup. Please send me a lock of your hair at your earliest convenience.

Jude Hardin said...

...and now back to work on my teenage werewolf novel. ;)

Unfocused Me said...

Very Heinlein-like post, Joe. From what I remember, Heinlein used to describe writing in one of two ways: (1) an incurable disease, or (2) a way to pay off the mortgage.

Writing *is* easier than digging ditches. That doesn't mean everyone can or should do it (darn it, there are ditches that need digging!) or that it is easy to do well. The same can be said of painting, dancing, acting, or any other art. The idea that we're all entertainers makes sense to me.

The way I see it, you can say what you want to say without being entertaining, but you probably won't have much more of an audience, or any more impact, than the guy shouting into a megaphone on the corner. The guy on the corner juggling while riding a unicycle, though, usually draws a crowd.

Anonymous said...

The constant references to writer's block among writers is nauseatingly solipsistic.

Even MORE annoying is encountering this reference among non-writers. I can't tell you how many times people have asked, upon learning what I do for a living, "So do you get writer's block?"

This is troubling on several levels. First, because it's one of the questions people ask writers that they most likely would never think to ask of other professionals. Seriously, do people ask podiatrists how much they make for a corn shave, and whether or not they get "podiatrist's block"? It's just assumed that people will have days they don't feel like working, but they'll do it anyway. A fact of life, not worth mentioning.

This is also annoying because it's the first thing many people think about when writers are mentioned. The trope is that familiar, which indicates to me that it has been used too often and exagerated too much.

ec

JA Konrath said...

I have friends who love Adaptation and Barton Fink, but the only movie that accurately portrayed a writer was Misery. That one hurt. The hobbling was bad, but he wrote three complete books that were destroyed. OUCH.

Brad R. Torgersen said...

Mr. Konrath,

I wanted to thank you for your 700+ page Newbie's Guide. I read it in late August and it snapped me out of a pretty bad funk.

I've been plinking (more or less) on fiction writing since 1992. I've worked since I was 16, been married since I was 19, been in the Army Reserve since age 28, and a father since age 29. The time I can spend on fiction is limited, and my patience with the Suffering Artistes of the world is also limited.

Writers who cannot keep their own profession in proper perspective, make me ill. Especially when I know Soldiers coming back from Iraq with PTSD, nightmares, debilitating injury... Then I read some blog by some writer wherein he/she groans elegantly about the torture and life-rending trauma of typing one letter after another until a story is complete.

Please.

Writing is entertainment. Writers should enjoy this and exploit it to the full, but stop short of getting a big head. As Hollywood clearly demonstrates, when an entertainer starts believing their own press, and thinking they have all kinds of Wisdom to dispense to the unwashed masses, all sorts of embarrassing hilarity ensues.

Anyway, thanks for the Newbie's Guide, the inspiration, and the writing ethos which is clearly grounded in humility and levity.

David Mason said...

You're free to think of yourself and your peers, Joe, as streetcorner buskers. It's a useful image, and I give you credit for the honesty and self-effacement of it. On the other hand, serious contemporary authors like Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, and Alice Munro aim for and achieve something much different. Something much larger. Then again, they're not exactly your peers. So I guess your point stands.

JA Konrath said...

I only hope one day I can aspire to the literary heights of Philip Roth's The Breast, where the hero turns into...wait for it...a giant breast. And a lactating one at that.

Yeah, Roth is waaaaay outta my league. But maybe one day, if I try real hard...

Brad--thanks for the kind words. :)

Ann Voss Peterson said...

"I have friends who love Adaptation and Barton Fink, but the only movie that accurately portrayed a writer was Misery."

Speak for yourself, Joe. My life is much more like Romancing the Stone.

David Mason said...

You're right, Joe. It's all a joke, everything's crap, and nothing has any value.

JA Konrath said...

Value is in the eye of the beholder, David. There are no universal indicators that indicate what is worthy and what isn't.

IMO, The Breast, and most of Roth's work, isn't worthy. It's long, ponderous, self-indulgent, and not at all entertaining.

But that's my opinion. Many other folks have different opinions. That doesn't make me right, or them right, or Roth's books "good" or "bad."

A "good" surgeon has a better chance of saving a patient than a "bad" surgeon. That's less subjective.

And because of that, I give "good" surgeons permission to bitch about how hard their jobs are.

But writers struggling over their own prose? Gimme a break...

Jude Hardin said...

There are no universal indicators that indicate what is worthy and what isn't.

I don't know, Joe. I could put any of the self-published books on my shelf next to any of the traditionally-published ones and clearly point out why one works and the other doesn't.

Come on, man. It's what agents and editors do all day long. I'm sure many good books do get rejected for reasons other than the writing quality, but I think most of us can recognize a dog after reading a page or two.

Think about all those contest entries you read a while back, and the criteria you used to eliminate most of them right away.

David Mason said...

Right. Like I said, you're correct. There are no standards, and Joe Konrath is every bit as good as Philip Roth or Don DeLillo or Toni Morrison or Alice Munro.

That's certainly one way to tell yourself you've succeeded.

Jude Hardin said...

Here's the link for those who might have missed it.

I thought it was a good post, and I think most of the advice in A Newbie's Guide to Publishing Book is spot-on. But you're kind of contradictiong yourself, Joe, by giving writing advice and then saying there are no universal indicators as to what's worthy and what isn't.

There's no point in trying to improve if good doesn't exist. I would argue that good does exist, and that certain criteria can be used to determine it from bad. Now, determining good from great is more a matter of opinion, I think, but it's really not that hard to recognize sheer incompetence when it comes to writing.

Brad R. Torgersen said...

"Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, and Alice Munro"

Maybe this makes me unsophisticated, but.... WHO? Of those four names, I only recognize two. And of those two, I have read neither of them.

Let me guess, they are Serious Authors who are routinely assigned to college lit students, because they are Serious.

Like Truman Capote. Who I found endlessly boring, and not just a little strange, as a person.

Why is it that so many Serious Authors have odd, bizarre, or miserable personal lives? By all accounts, Norman Mailer was a cretin. I know we shouldn't judge writing based on the life of the author, but...

JA Konrath said...

Jude, I've said it before, and it bears repeating, that after a minimum base level of quality is reached, taste becomes subjective.

I'm not comparing unpubbed work to pubbed work. Agents represent work and editors publish work that they believe has quality.

Once a work has been approved of by these gatekeepers, we can assume a certain level of professionalism exists.

But saying Philip Roth is better than Lawrence Block is a subjective, and very silly, arguement. I agree that some works are good enough to be published, and some arent. But those that are published are already considered "good" and personal taste dicatates which is better than which.

JA Konrath said...

I'm curious, David. If I'm such a lousy writer, why do you visit my blog, which is devoted to giving out writerly advice?

Jude Hardin said...

Not to pick on Philip Roth...but I grabbed a copy of Portnoy's Complaint one time and I don't think I made it through the first chapter.

So I vote for Larry Block.

I think genre fiction can be every bit as "important" as literary fiction, and a hell of a lot more entertaining most of the time.

David Mason said...

I'm curious, David. If I'm such a lousy writer, why do you visit my blog, which is devoted to giving out writerly advice?
Why do people slow down to rubberneck at car wrecks?

Jude Hardin said...

"Ain't no good guy. Ain't no bad guy. There's only you and me, and we just disagree..."

Are you that Dave Mason? I didn't think so...

Just to be fair, and just to show how tastes can change dramatically, I went over to Amazon a few minutes ago and read the first few pages of Portnoy's Complaint. First time I've read it in maybe 20 years. I actually like it very much now. I think it's hilarious. Maybe you should give The Breast another try, Joe.

Anonymous said...

*Why do people slow down to rubberneck at car wrecks?*

Because they're assholes?

JA Konrath said...

Hey, play nice. Everyone is free to express their opinion here, except when it devolves into name calling. Especially anonymous name-calling, which is cowardly. If it continues, I'll turn on comment moderation.

You've been warned.

JA Konrath said...

Jude, I own The Breast, and it's truly awful.

He was making some point about sexuality, but Woody Allen did it better, and his attempt was at least amusing.

Stacia said...

I haven't gone thru to read all the posts, cause lord knows, you get a lot of them ;)

I write when I can. If I focus, I can get a book done in 2.5 weeks.And yes, that's with a full time job...and the first time I did it...with a broken shoulder.

So, I have to agree. People need to get over themselves. If you want to write. WRITE!

Writing is a skill AND a talent.
~S

If you want to publish...then, you're going to have to do the WORK for that as well.

Bhaswati said...

LOLOL, JA. I laughed throughout this post. You hit the nail straight on the head. I have no clue either why writing is deemed more important than baking breads or cleaning the basement. It's not only no more special, but as you say, even a lot easier than most other jobs.

stevemosby said...

Joe -

"Value is in the eye of the beholder, David. There are no universal indicators that indicate what is worthy and what isn't."

Well, that's the whole field of aesthetics out of the window, then. Everything after the first ten minutes, anyway.

Seriously, I support the idea that one book can't be 'better' than another, because tastes are subjective. In the same way, a posh restaurant does not serve 'better' food than McDonalds. It would be foolish, however, to argue that means it isn't far more complex, carefully thought out in terms of flavours, and perhaps more nutritious. Or that it isn't harder to cook.

The problem starts when you use words like 'value' and 'worthy'. From a high-level, yes, it's all the same. (And there's no logical basis for the published/non-published distinction, by the way; taste is either subjective or it isn't). But there are different ways to value something. We might value a James Patterson as quick entertainment; we might value, say, Shakespeare or Orwell for something more - the insight they give into the human condition, beyond the particulars in the actual play or novel.

Seriously, Joe - is James Patterson as 'worthy' of being taught on the school curriculum as George Orwell? Is there as much to learn from it? Is there as much value in it? If your answer is (somehow) 'yes', then let's just get rid of literature in schools altogether and stick a few PS3s in the classrooms. It would be less effort for everyone.

Robin Bayne said...

The only time writing does seem very hard is when someone at a cocktail party says to you, "Oh as soon as a I get some time I'm going to whip up a novel and get rich."

Brad R. Torgersen said...

I won't speak for Mr. Konrath, but 95% of the stuff they force-fed me in school, was boring crap. And I was an AP student who read voraciously.

F. Scott Fitzgerald? Boring. Truman Capote? Boring. Shakespeare? Not boring at all, but so linguistically ancient as to prove awesomely cryptic. Harper Lee? Boring. Steinbeck? Boring!

Boring, boring, boring...

So far as I can tell, the prerequisite for being a Serious Author who writes Great American Literature, is that you must be boring at all costs.

I remember my AP lit teacher from my Junior year. She was a PhD. and stuffy as hell! Looked down her nose at all of us and our "trash" fiction we read during free moments in class.

What was I reading, personally?

Tom Clancy.
Stephen King.
Clive Cussler.
Orson Scott Card.
Dale Brown.
Stephen Coonts.
Stephen R. Donaldson.
Whoever was writing Star Trek novels.

Apparently, the definition of "trash" is any contemporary, enjoyable fiction written after 1970 and which just happens to be commercially successful.

If we're going to discuss worth, my definition of "worth", as it pertains to literature, is fiction which engages the reader's imagination and entertains. If I want to read Deep Thought about the human condition, I'll read philosophy.

Fiction which pushes philosophy above all else, is just pulpit-pounding. And that's boring too. Which is why I put down 'Atlas Shrugged' halfway through the book. Rand was hitting me over the head with it.

Take me on a journey. Show me an adventure, or a new world, or the heroism and tragedy of war. This is what I want, as a consumer reader. Not boring-ass literary crap that's deemed "good" because it's so boring and so nonsensical that the fiction critics praise it, lest they admit that they themselves are bored and confused.

And we can't have that, now can we?

JA Konrath said...

Hi Steve--

You've offered a lot here. Let's go point by point.

The restaurant analogy doesn't quite work, for a few reasons.

If you got to McDonald's, you're paying $5 to eat. If you go to The 95th Floor, you're paying $40. While they both fill you up, the food and the experience are going to vary a great deal.

Does that make one better than the other? And from a purely popular standpoint, which resturant sells more food?

If you go to Barnes and Noble, you're paying $25 for Philip Roth, or James Patterson. While the audiences may be different, with different expectations, they're more closely related than a McGriddle and Filet Mignon.

You can distinguish the difference in food quality by many objective criteria. Cost of ingredients, prep time, staff needed, food presentation, number of steps and ingredients, etc.

Once books meet a minimum base objective criteria requirement (e.g. agents and publishers have accepted them) then "quality" really does come down to personal taste, much more so than food.

there's no logical basis for the published/non-published distinction, by the way; taste is either subjective or it isn't

Taste is subjective once the story can be accepted as a story. Many unpublished stories don't meet the minimum criteria for publication.

This isn't subjective. McDonald's wouldn't serve a paste sandwich with nails on it, because it isn't food. Some writing simply doesn't meet the base criteria for "story" or if it does, it's poorly done or hard to see that.

In other posts, I've gone into criteria necessary for publication. That list is also subjective, to a degree. So let's stick to published work for the purpose of this discussion.

But there are different ways to value something.

I agree. The problem is getting humanity to agree on what these ways are.

Personally, I wouldn't teach Patterson in a college class. But I would teach Stephen King, Denis Lehane, Michael Connelley, Lawrence Block, and Donald Westlake.

If I had to teach Patterson, I think he masterfully uses plot and characterization, dual narrative, rising action, and suspense, in Along Came A Spider. Patterson also did win an Edgar Award, which the MWA gives for excellence in the mystery genre.

But I'd be teaching Patterson for a writing class, not for a lit class. I'd have no problem teaching Chandler, Ross MacDonald, or Mickey Spillane for a lit class, though.

Writers taught in lit classes usually write books with weighty themes. What these themes are can be subjective, but I'm aware something like 1984 or Lord of the Flies or A Clockwork Orange (three books I love, BTW) have ideas behind them that go beyond simple entertainment.

But does that make them worthier? Is A Clockwork Orange a "better" book than Thinner because it has a more provocative theme?

Well, again, there's no real indicator. Other than sales. And say what you want about Patterson, he outsells the entire Lit section in bookstores.

As for throwing PS3's into the classroom, I'm all for it. I have an Xbox 360, and I personally believe some of the best storytelling of this decade is being done in videogames. Right now I'm playing Bioshock with my 11 year old son. You run around an undersea world, shooting psychotic genetic mutations. It's fun. But it also tells a pretty intense story about dystopian society, vanity, dictatorship, self-image, and mercy, and it has provoked conversation about these topics prompted by his questions.

You're still shooting monsters, but you're also exercising your brain.

If books are judged on a basis of which has meaning and which doesn't, then we don't need genre at all. The publishers and bookstores dictate the relevant ones by putting "literature" on the spine and shelving them in the proper section.

But getting back to the point of this blog entry, even writers with "weighty themes" in their books have no license to whine about their careers. It's self-indulgent, petulant, and silly.

And "weighty" doesn't make something "better." I love filet mignon. But I eat a lot more burgers. They world is a better place because I can have both.

JA Konrath said...

Nicely put, Brad.

Anonymous said...

Brad, I wouldn't call the work of any of those authors you listed "boring crap." You take exception to people who dismiss the books YOU like "trash," but how is your characterization of literary fiction any different? Perhaps you should consider extending the same courtesy to people who enjoy a wide range of fiction as you would like to receive.

There are people who thoroughly enjoy the works of Truman Capote AND Janet Evanovich. I am one of them. As Mr. Konrath pointed out, the world is a better place because we can have both.

ec

ann voss peterson said...

I really don't understand what David is arguing here.

No working author benefits from indulging in self-important drama. I don't care who you're talking about. It's a form of self sabotage. It hurts a literary author's life's work in just the same way that it hurts a commercial novelist's career.

You sit, and you write, and you rewrite. That's the job whether your books are packaged as literary or as genre fiction. If that's too difficult, get another job. If it's the only thing you really want to do, then quit with the drama queen bullshit and get to work.

And that Joe is quite the little bomb thrower, isn't he? 56 comments as I write this. Wow.

Brad R. Torgersen said...

Anonymous,

I didn't say I think Capote's work shouldn't exist. I said I found it horribly boring. And yet, the irony; lit teachers endlessly represent Capote as one of our pinnacle American writers of the last 100 years.

What gives?

Basically I rebel against the academic oligarchy of educators and critics who (for no good reason I can discern) get to decide what is and is not Valuable in the fiction world.

If they get to use purely subjective criteria to make Objective Declarations, then I'm damned well gonna call a book crap when I think it's crap; and not blink twice.

Capote is crap. It's boring. I've tried a dozen times to read different Capote work, and it's snooze-inducing every time. How or why this man managed to climb to the height of literary prestige (both during and after his lifetime) is truly beyond me.

Yet Stephen King, arguably the most successful American author of all time, is routinely derided as a garbage peddler and a hack.

Sorry, maybe I am just fed up with seeing the Philip Roths of the world enshrined by our literary elite, while the commercially successful writers get accused of selling out, pandering, writing low-grade junk, etc.

In a head-to-head contest, to see which writer has a larger cultural footprint, who would win? Stephen King, or Philip Roth?

King, obviously. And rightly so, from where I sit. King entertains. King doesn't put on airs. And his work speaks endlessly about the Human Condition without making the reading painfully aware of the fact.

And really, I suspect that's what burns up so many people in the literary elite. They can't stand that a "trashman" like King is selling one hundred to one against Important Authors. Yet King is cooking up the same "meat" as the literary names. He's just doing it on the backyard charcoal grill, with salt and beer and supermarket BBQ sauce.

I'd even dare to say that because a book is assigned as Required Reading in a college lit course is the highest form of damnation against it; if it were truly a worthwhile read, people would be snapping it up off the shelves and there would be no need to assign it to students at all; like a parent making his or her child eat their broccoli and asparagus stalks.

"Read this! It's good for you!!"

No thanks.

JA Konrath said...

if it were truly a worthwhile read, people would be snapping it up off the shelves and there would be no need to assign it to students at all

Heh. I like that image.

The problem, whether the books are good or not, is making readers aware they exist.

There are many books I love that are out of print. I'd like to think that other folks, probably agood many of them, share my taste in books and would love these as I do, given the opportunity to read them. But they may never get the chance, because what's in the book may have nothing at all to do with sales.

No working author benefits from indulging in self-important drama.

I could have just said that and I wouldn't have needed anything else.

Anonymous said...

AVP: No working author benefits from indulging in self-important drama.

JAK: I could have just said that and I wouldn't have needed anything else.

True, but then the post wouldn't have spawned so much discussion. :)

Brad, certainly you're entitled to your opinion, but I don't agree that a book can be considered crap if it's assigned in a college lit class. That is rather like claiming Plato and Kant and Kierkegaard should not be assigned in philosophy classes because if what they had to say was worthwhile, people who wanted to learn about philosophy would already have read about them. People take classes to learn more about a subject. Many lit classes focus on the history of literature, and that involves learning about the culture of the time. There's more involved than simple entertainment. A study of books you might not have read for pleasure--or for that matter, might not have heard about, since they're not on the NYT list or the coop tables at Borders--can be very rewarding.

I don't care much for elitist bullshit, either. I'm very well acquainted with the concept, having been the target of such for the whole of my writing career. I've published over a dozen books that are not just fantasy novels, but (::gasp, clutch the pearls::) shared-world fantasy; i.e., Star Wars, the Forgotten Realm, and so on. There has never been a shortage of people who will dismiss my work because it falls into a catagory about which they harbor a prejudice. But from where I stand, dismissing a book for any reason--too high-brow, too low-brow, too commercial, a genre book, a fantasy book, the WRONG KIND of fantasy--is pretty much the same thing.

And I'm not anonymous--I always sign my posts. I just don't have a blogger account.

ec

www.elainecunningham.com

Brad R. Torgersen said...

EC,

Sorry, I didn't know what the ec stood for. Thanks for posting the web link. I will browse your site.

I suppose I just hold a grudge from being force-fed certain authors when I was a younger man. Especially when it was done by profs or instructors who openly derided the fiction I happened to be enjoying at that time. Ergo, Clancy, King, etc.

Much comes down to taste, and I suppose my taste has never been for the stories of Fitzgerald or Capote. That they were force-fed to me simply added insult to injury.

Mr. Konrath makes a point in that even excellent contemporary fiction can get buried by poor sales or poor marketing.

One of my favorite fiction titles of all time, "A Reckoning for Kings", is almost impossible to find these days. Even though I think it's one of the greatest contemporary war novels in existence. If I were doing a writing class, and I could pick what the students read, that might be one of them.

And then the shoe would be on the other foot, and suddenly I'm the guy force-feeding my preferences to the class... Uh oh!

=^)

JA Konrath said...

For the record, there's some Roth, and some Capote, I like.

But here's something I learned that most professional teachers, critics, and the masses in general don't seem to understand: we project ourselves onto art and media.

Have you ever hated a movie of book, went back to it later, and loved it?

Have you ever loved a movie or book, watched it again, and wondered what you were thinking?

Taste is not only subjective, it fluxuates. The work of art doesn't change. but how we respond to it is very much dependent on many things that are in no way empirical or intrinsic within the work.

Things can grow on you. You can outgrow things. Different work has different meaning, not only to different people, but at different points in people's lives.

Our opinions, no matter how much we defend them, often can have mroe to do with what we had for breakfast, how many hours we've been awake, and our preconceived expectations, rather than anything tangible in the actual art.

Because of this, I hold people who are able to change their mind after considering things in high esteem. It's much easier to defend yourself than reconsider your reasoning.

Anonymous said...

BRT: Sorry, I didn't know what the ec stood for.

No reason why you SHOULD have. I'm not only a shared-world fantasy writer, I'm a fairly obscure one. Alas. :)

JAK: TTaste is not only subjective, it fluxuates. The work of art doesn't change. but how we respond to it is very much dependent on many things that are in no way empirical or intrinsic within the work.

Things can grow on you. You can outgrow things.


True. Odd, that so many people don't seem to realize this.

I know JAK contends that a writer fails if a book does not connect with a reader. And I know a lot of readers who would resent the above-quoted comment, believing it implies that if they don't like a book, the "fault" lies with them. (Been there, seen that, have the message-board-flame-war scorch marks to prove it.) But. IMO, there are many reasons why a book and a reader might not connect at a particular time, and most of those reasons have nothing whatsoever to do with "failure" and "fault."

ec

stevemosby said...

Joe -

"But getting back to the point of this blog entry, even writers with "weighty themes" in their books have no license to whine about their careers. It's self-indulgent, petulant, and silly."

This might well be true in some cases, but your original post is full of straw men. No, writing is not as physically hard as laying bricks, or socially useful as curing disease. Whoever said it was? But if you care about something, you're going to work hard at it, and that creates pressure. It's no more silly to say "fuck, my writing's going badly at the moment" than it is to complain about any other job, or anything else that means something to you. Sure, writers have an easy life in the grand scheme of things. So do bricklayers. And so, as it goes, do the people in the soup kitchen. If you want to diminish what you do to the point that you could never be down about it, then be my guest. Me, I don't like pretension. But I do like to see a bit of passion.

As for the rest of it, I really don't know where to begin. You missed the point of the food analogy, demonstrating only that any analogy can be stretched out of shape. Sure, the cost is different to books. It's also food, not books. I mean, you can go on forever.

As for your argument about value, as far as I can tell it's more an argument against the word 'better' being used in any context whatsoever. If two people get anything at all out of two different activities - be it Patterson versus Orwell, burger versus steak or, presumably, writing versus working in a soup kitchen - then there can be no value distinction between them.

I don't know. I suspect you know more about art theory than you're letting on, and are just playing a few crowd-pleasing riffs as part of the whole sales jangle. I hope so, although I suppose that's depressing in its own right.

JA Konrath said...

But if you care about something, you're going to work hard at it, and that creates pressure.

I agree. But stress and self-importance are two different things.

I also agree that passion is good, and pretension is bad.

My point, as Ann succintly put it, is: No working author benefits from indulging in self-important drama.

I didn't miss the point of the food antholgy. I just contend there's a far greater gap between McDonalds and 5 star restuarants than there is between any two novels, and there are more objective ways to rate food than writing.

Getting away from the word "better," if you can define how there's more value in Roth than Patterson I'd like to hear your argument.

From a strictly objective point of view, an arguement can be made that Patterson is more valuable ebcause he is more famous and more popular and sells more books and makes more money.

From an academic point of view, Roth can be considered valuable because he's taught and studied and dissertations have been written about his works.

Because an academic minority declares meaning ina work of art, is that proof the work of art has meaning? Are those Writers who are embraced by the literati are somehow superior to the genre drones?

I suspect you know more about art theory than you're letting on, and are just playing a few crowd-pleasing riffs as part of the whole sales jangle.

I go to concerts to see those crowd pleasing riffs. And I'd bet the musicians who are on stage put a lot of time and effort into their careers.

This begs the question of talent, especially recognizing it.

A painter can paint an apple, a musician can play a tune, and a layperson can judge if it looks like an apple or sounds like the song it is supposed to sound like.

A book is a harder thing to judge, because subjective opinion plays a larger role.

I hope so, although I suppose that's depressing in its own right.

It's depressing to understand human nature?

JA Konrath said...

IMO, there are many reasons why a book and a reader might not connect at a particular time, and most of those reasons have nothing whatsoever to do with "failure" and "fault."

That's a valid point.

I'll still argue that if a work of art fails, the blame needs to fall on the creator. Keeping in mind that all art will ultimately fail some people. The goal is to entertain more than you fail.

But people shouldn't be so harsh to judge art, and realize that they may be projecting their biases onto a work.

It's possible, theoretically, to see the good in everything.

It's also possible that everything is crap.

Rationalizing an argument is one thing, but I've noticed that with the advent of the Internet, people don't feel the need to justify their opinions.

Ann Voss Peterson said...

Okay, here's another for you, Joe.

Self-important drama doesn't make a work of art better. It ensures less work is getting done.

Sometimes avoiding these self-destructive mind games is one of the hardest things about writing.

Yeah, I've thought a lot about this stuff...when I was indulging in artistic anguish instead of getting words on the page.

stevemosby said...

Joe -

"Getting away from the word "better," if you can define how there's more value in Roth than Patterson I'd like to hear your argument."

I don't know about Roth, because I've never read him. And this is a tight space to discuss art theory, but I'll have a go.

I'd say the difference is basically one of escaping from the real world versus seeing it in a new light. 'Literature' (as a category, not a value judgement) is fiction that gives you a new view of the world around you, and forces you to engage with it. So you don't read Orwell's Animal Farm and just think "well, that's a nice story about pigs". Because, although it functions on that level, it's also about the Soviet Union, and totalitarianism in general. Power corrupts, etc. You can look at the real world afterwards, and see it in a new way. You see the world through the fiction.

And look: this isn't subjective at all. In fact, reading for thrills or escapism is far more subjective, because it depends on the reader's response. You can't say "No, you've missed something; it is thrilling". But if someone says "Animal Farm is just a book about pigs" then they really have missed something. Are you saying it's not there if someone doesn't see it?

So when you say -

"Because an academic minority declares meaning ina work of art, is that proof the work of art has meaning?"

- the questions is irrelevant, and feels slightly like an inferiority complex. The meaning is either there or not there, irrespective of who claims it. And then you compound that by saying -

"Are those Writers who are embraced by the literati are somehow superior to the genre drones?"

- when this has absolutely nothing to do with genre. Never has, never will.

The subjective part is the value we place on those two different experiences. Someone who reads to 'enrich' their view of the world ... at a basic level, that isn't better or more valuable than reading for thrills. It comes down to which experience is most thrilling for you. So yes, you dig down far enough, there are no foundations.

But if you start from that level, which I think is your problem, you can't build any concept of value at all. In reality, people start from higher up, and come up with theories to explain the systems of value that have arisen around them. I mean, I'd like to see you build - from all the way down there on that subjective level - an argument for why working in a soup kitchen is more 'valuable' than sitting on your arse all day.

Trace said...

JA – just wanted to offer a thought. Writing is a craft and new writers especially must hone that craft (the pros do as well, though not as much). Who is going to be a better golfer, the person who plays everyday or the individual that gets out whenever they can? I feel the same holds true for writing. If you really want to make it as a writer, it makes sense to put pen to paper every day.

I have a 4-month-old daughter, a mother-in-law and a 40-hour-a-week job, so finding time to write is always a challenge. I have to write when I can, which is not every day (probably once a week), but I do understand that I’d be a much better writer if I did write every day.

JA Konrath said...

The meaning is either there or not there, irrespective of who claims it.

In the case of allegory like Animal Farm, yes.

But I posit that this "meaning" you speak of has no more quality beyond simple entertainment value.

How does learning about the Russian Revolution specifically impact your life, any more than an episode of Seinfeld?

In reality, people start from higher up, and come up with theories to explain the systems of value that have arisen around them.

Explaining life or history or looking at things from a different perspective isn't "starting from higher up." It's mental masturbation. "Meaning" is in the eye of the beholder. Authors who strive for meaning don't have any harder a job than those who strive for laughs, or tears, or scares.

I liked 1984. I didn't like Animal Farm, which I found dry and without any sympathetic characters other than the plow horse. Good on Orwell for creating the Russain Revolution with pigs, but I simply don't see that as enriching, or even all that interesting.

It might be a great way to understand the Russain Revolution, if you're intested in that subject or taking a class about it, but as fiction it doesn't move me at all.

My opinion, of course, but that's the point.

Most fiction is a bit more obtuse than Animal Farm, however, and meaning often exists where you look for it.

I have no problems with authors who try to enrich their stories with meaning. My novels have a specific theme, and my main character follows a distinct story arc throughout the first six books--one that closely parallels my philosophy about the meaning of life.

But that's subtext. The goal is to entertain first and foremost. The Discovery Channel, newspapers, and any information that doesn't directly impact your base needs (food, clothing, shelter, love) is entertainment. Art is entertainment. Philosophy is entertainment. History is entertainment.

why working in a soup kitchen is more 'valuable' than sitting on your arse all day.

Because feeding someone is essential to life. Entertaining them is not.

But if you start from that level, which I think is your problem, you can't build any concept of value at all.

This is where we agree to disagree.

Value is 100% subjective. A reader of James Patterson might not care about Stalin, Lenin, or talking pigs, and that doesn't say anything about the reader, Patterson, or Orwell. It's just opinion.

stevemosby said...

Joe -

You're right: we should agree to disagree - for my own sanity, if nothing else. I guess anyone who's genuinely interested in the topic can pick up a book on the philosophy of art and read about how value distinctions in the arts are made.

Anonymous said...

Writers tend to do two things really well: whine and inflate their own importance.

I love ya, Joe, but you only have to go through the archives on this blog to know this is true.

jnantz said...

Brad,
As a High School Lit teacher and unpubbed mystery/thriller writer, I can certainly understand where you are coming from. It sounds like your argument was maybe a little less with the books themselves (many of which I agree are dull, primarily because of the difference in the time period in which they were written...no movies/tv/radio, so description had to be more thorough) and maybe moreso with the teachers spitting on your own favorites. 'Course I could be wrong...

Example: I love Lee's MOCKINGBIRD, just as I love 1984, CATCH-22, CATCHER IN THE RYE, COPENHAGEN, ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, MACBETH, PYGMALION, and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, all of which I teach. I love these works for different reasons, and I must be a damn good teacher because my students end up loving them as well, with VERY few exceptions.

However, while I find Clancy incredibly wordy and overblown, I do enjoy Block, Connelly, Battles, Deaver, Sharp, Child, King, JD Rhoades, Crais, Gerritsen, etc. I don't know how many of these I would teach for literary merit, but I certainly don't look down on a student reading them, because I love 'em. They're all great!

I don't look down on someone reading the Twilight books either, or Christopher Paolini, even though I despise the books themselves because I personally consider them unreadable (because the subject matter is about as important to me as anal seepage). But I'm still approving and encouraging because the kids are reading. And sometimes they're identifying with themes in some and characters in others, and sometimes just being entertained by something other than a Tom Cruise blockbuster. But they're reading.

Oh, and Mr. Konrath I agree wholeheartedly about video games with stories. My wife will just watch me play a game because she is entertained by the story as it unfolds (provided I don't screw up/die a lot). MASS EFFECT is her recent favorite, though it might be a little age-inappropriate for your 11 year old. I'd still recommend it because I don't know how much is too much for your kid, so just be aware. But it's a freakin' GREAT game. ASSASSIN'S CREED is another good one, though the anti-religious message bothers some, I just see it as fiction and move on with my beliefs intact.

JA Konrath said...

I love ya, Joe, but you only have to go through the archives on this blog to know this is true.

You should post examples when making a statement like that. With over eight hundred thousand words of blog posts on Newbie's Guide you've got your work cut out for you.

I created this blog to share my experience and empower writers. If you can find some examples of whining or self-importance, I'd love to see them.

You'll probably find some arrogance, but that's not because I believe I'm better. I just believe I'm right. And I came by that belief fairly, by making a whole lot of wrong decisions.

JA Konrath said...

I loved Mass Effect and Assassin's Creed. Other recent faves are Gears of War, Turok, and Condemned.

And we're informal here--no need for anyone to call me Mr. Konrath. Joe is fine.

JA Konrath said...

To make you search for my whining easier, Anon, you can download the whole blog at this link, organized according to topic:

jakonrath.com/writers.htm

Gayle Carline said...

Wow,this has been fun - kinda like watching a literary slapfest. I do understand everyone's point of view, but I especially understand Joe's questioning of 'value' in art. I was an art major (in an earlier life), took all of the appreciation courses, understand what makes art 'significant', 'exceptional', yadda yadda. But good art isn't necessarily popular art, or vice versa. Norman Rockwell wasn't a darling of the critics, but people adore him - and it wouldn't surprise me to have art classes taught about his style. I'm old enough to remember the brouhaha created when some university offered a music course that studied the Beatles. In same hallowed halls as Beethoven? Gasp!

The question is, which is more 'valuable' - exquisitely crafted works of depth that reveal universal truth that are only read in school because they are assigned, or straight-arrow stories of cops and robbers that are read by millions because they are fun, enjoyable, escapist fare? Actually, the real question is - can't they both be equally valuable?

Chris said...

I can't really say that I agree with everything Joe said in his original post, but I can say this:

I fear for my grandchildren the day Harry McGlade is taught in a literature class.

JA Konrath said...

Next week's assignment, dissect the following section for socially revelvant subtext:

“My name is McGlade. Harrison Harold McGlade. I’d like to enroll my son Stimey into your school.”

“I’m sorry sir, there’s a minimum five year waiting period to get accepted into the Salieri academy. How old is your son now?”

“He’s seven.”

“We only accept four-year-olds.”

“He’s got the mind of a four-year-old. Retard. Mom dropped him down an escalator, he fell for forty minutes. Very sad. All someone had to do was hit the off switch.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Why? You a retard too?”

“Mr. McGlade...”

“I’m willing to pay money, Miss Janice. Big money. I’ll triple your enrollment fee.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Okay, I’ll double it.”

“I don’t think that...”

“Look, honey, is Mikey there? He assured me I’d be treated better than this.”

“You know Mr. Sousse?”

“Yeah. We played water polo together in college. I saved his horse from drowning.”

“Perhaps I should put you through to him.”

“Don’t bother. I’ll be there in an hour with a suitcase full of cash. I won’t bring Stimey, because he’s with his tutor tonight, learning how to chew. Keep the light on for me.”

I hung up, feeling smug. Years ago, when I was a toddler, I’d been forced to drop out of pre-school because I kept biting and hitting the other children. The unfairness of it, being discriminated against because I was a bully, still haunted me to this day.

Brad R. Torgersen said...

Joe,

OMG, ha ha ha ha!

Jude Hardin said...

Next week's assignment, dissect the following section for socially revelvant subtext:

Through the protagonist's crude and pitiless wit, the author apparently wishes to illustrate the absurdity of excessive "political correctness," and the illogicality of a generation brought up on super-tolerant parenting "experts."

JA Konrath said...

Also, the author is a jerk.

Roman J. Martel said...

Great post Joe. It's that cold splash of reality that all us snooty writers need... or was that the cold splash of gasoline... hey, back off. Writing's easy. See I'm writing right now!

Mary said...

There's no such thing as designer’s block, either. In my day job I have to jump to it and make tons of decisions each day. Being decisive is essential in any creative career. Keep making decisions and the work keeps moving forward.

stevemosby said...

Gayle -

"The question is, which is more 'valuable' - exquisitely crafted works of depth that reveal universal truth that are only read in school because they are assigned, or straight-arrow stories of cops and robbers that are read by millions because they are fun, enjoyable, escapist fare? Actually, the real question is - can't they both be equally valuable?"

(Because I ... just ... can't ... stop)

I sort of agree, although the two don't have to be exclusive: a page-turning, popular thriller can still have real depth. And I read far more popular fiction than I do heavyweight literature, because I enjoy it more, and I'm free to spend my time how I want.

My problem is with the idea that 'it's all just stuff to do' therefore you can't draw distinctions, because you obviously can. If someone said that eight hours of bubble-blowing had the same value as eight hours of hard science, I'd argue with them the same way I've argued with Joe. Left to my own devices, because it's all just stuff to do, I'd probably take one hour hard science lessons, the other seven, bubble-blowing. But I can completely understand why society 'values' one activity over the other.

And now, to cries of relief from all around, I really, actually, probably am done.

Susie McCray's On the Scene said...

I totally agree with you. There are alot harder jobs out there than being a writer and I will be so happy when that is the only job I have. Self-promotion is very important because no one can sell your work better than the author. It's time consuming, but I'd much rather be doing the best I can do to get my name out there than to just leave up to someone else to do.

JA Konrath said...

If someone said that eight hours of bubble-blowing had the same value as eight hours of hard science, I'd argue with them the same way I've argued with Joe.

Again, the determination of "value" is subjective.

I've learned a lot of useless things in life, through school and through pursuing my own interests.

If you're a scientist, hard science is your job.

If you're a layperson with an interest in science, how is pursuing knowledge--which is a form of happiness--any different than the happiness brought on by blowing bubbles?

Simple pleasures are just as important as deep-seated understanding of unnessesary trivia, and any trivia not essential to life is unnessesary.

Unless, of course, you can tell me how Napoleon's reign in France directly effects you, or how often you use differntial calculus in everyday life, or why it's important to know whether you're a realist or an empiricist. (I'm an empiricist, and Kant is Hume's bitch.)

I posit that writing effective humor, or action, or sex, is no more difficult than writing "value." I also posit that no type of writing is harder than working in a coal mine.

I'm all for self-discovery and the pursuit of knowledge. But I don't see how that's anything other than entertainment value, unless your calling in life directly relates to the knowledge you're pursuing.

In other words, some things make me think, some things make me laugh, and neither has more value than the other.

Jude Hardin said...

Also, the author is a jerk.

Nah. I think he's a pretty cool dude. :)

I was just trying to show, tongue-in-cheek really, how easy it is to assign social relevance (or allusions, themes, symbolism, etc.) where (I'm going out on a limb and guessing here) none was originally intended. I think it happens more often than The Literati would like to admit.

As for the philosophy of art...

According to your theory, Joe, everything is subjective, and The Complete Works of William Shakespeare has no more intrinsic value than The Flintstones Complete DVD set. Sorry, but that's just crazy talk.

The Simpsons, maybe, but not The Flintstones. Shakespeare's way better than The Flintstones...

JA Konrath said...

Shakespeare's way better than The Flintstones...

But does Shakespeare have both a fruity and a cocoa cereal?

Seriously, though, a key word here is "intrinsic."

While the artist may intend to provoke a reaction, the art viewer either has that reaction or doesn't. There's nothing inherent or intrinsic in a work of art that will automatically make all people react to it.

The best an artist can do is try to get as many people to react as possible.

Which brings us to the gatekeepers.

Throughout history, mankind has been exposed to the art that the church, government, big business, and wealthy benefactors deem relevant.

We watch what they put on TV and in the theaters. We read what they print. We visit museums and galleries featuring works already chosen for us.

Which brings up a point I often belabor--creating the art is only part of what the artist must do. The artist must also make people aware the art exists, lest the art fad einto obscurity.

Much art fades into obscurity. And factors or time, society, and environment, along with personal subjective opinions, show that art only has value because we attribute value to it, and not all of us attribute the same value to the same things.

If we wanted to be more objective, we could count the number of people impacted by a work of art, and try to rate the effect it had on them.

Certain gatekeepers, such as critics and academics, decide what is worthy enough to praise and teach.

But, again, their assessment is subjective, not based on any value pre-existing within the art. They certainly can defend the reasons why certain books should be taught, but their defense ultimately comes down to belief rather than actual proof.

Jude Hardin said...

Well-said, Joe.

You know, The Gatekeepers would probably say that a guy like me just isn't cultured or educated enough to appreciate what they consider to be Art with a capital A.

My response?

Pffffftttt!

And word around the campfire is they are developing a William Shakespeare breakfast cereal. It's called RomeOs, and it snaps, crackles, and pops in iambic pentameter.

Simon Haynes said...

I blogged about the same thing on the SF Novelists site last month: http://www.sfnovelists.com/2008/07/17/write-in-spurts/

I've never been a 'write every day' proponent. I write when I have to, and then I give it my all.

Jude Hardin said...

btw...

I've had lots of different jobs, and I know one thing to be true: people whine. Writers certainly don't have a monopoly on that annoying habit. It's human nature to be dissatisfied, to get weary and cranky with the status quo after a while, to think the grass must be greener on the other side.

If I only could...meet the right person...get that promotion...win the lottery...get an agent...land a book contract...make it to the NYT best seller list...get a movie deal...

And writing isn't really harder or easier than any other job. It's certainly not as physically demanding as some, but it comes with its own unique set of challenges and stressors. I'd sure like to give it a shot fulltime, though.

If only I could land a book deal...

ann voss peterson said...

I used to write literary short stories, and now I write romantic suspense novels. This is how I define the difference between literary and genre fiction:

Literary fiction seeks to portray an aspect or aspects of the world as it is. It is an observation of character and human relationships. It is thought of as "art" in much the same way as a painting or sculpture (a representation of the world/"truth" through the artist's eye).

Genre fiction seeks to give readers a framework to understand the world as it is, whether that framework be justice or love or judgement (good vs. evil) or whatever. It is the descendant of epic poetry, morality tales, mythology and the like. It is part of the human race's quest to understand the world and pass down that understanding through storytelling.

To argue that one has more value than the other begs the question, what specific -values- are you talking about?

JA Konrath said...

Ann, you were too cerebral and you killed the thread.

I was hoping for 100 too...

Jude Hardin said...

I'm the 100th comment! Woohoo! Where's my prize? I know there's a prize! Where is it?

There is a prize, isn't there?

Momma B said...

Ok, this is the first time I have been on your blog and I just want to say that I wanted to be the cook who refused to cook fish! HA!!!! Sorry, I get the post and all, but the first thing that comes to mind is "HEY, I wanted to be a chef and I HATE fish, so I just won't make any, AT ALL!!!" Yes, being a belligerent pain IS one of my strong points! What can I say, I have 7 kids! It helps to be belligerent!!!

Ann Voss Peterson said...

Sorry, Joe.
I promise not to be cerebral anymore. Luckily Jude came through with post 100.

M.J. said...

IMHO, not a great post Joe. Sorry.

The very very very last thing readers and bookstores need are writers who don't take time - struggle or not - to write the best books they can. Fast, down and dirty is not the way to a long career unless you are a freaky genius.

A really good anything - book, cure for cancer, good parent takes a lot of time, effort, and patience.

I agree - as a gig- we shouldn't whine about how hard this is. But I don't think we should whine or put down writers who want to spend hours, days, years trying to create something meaningful that might offer people who want one and yes even need one an escape and quality entertainment.

Rob said...

I'm confused. I was assigned Stephen King's The Shining in a college lit class. Does that change the novel's status from Awesome to Boring Crap? Bummer, dude. I liked that novel.

leonard c. said...

Here's why I have a problem with this idea that "sales = quality." Take a writer like Mr. Konrath. He sells somewhere around 10k copies of each hardcover. That's not very many books. Q.E.D., by his own logic, he's not a very good writer. But I don't accept that. Maybe he just hasn't caught on with the audience yet. Maybe his publisher hasn't adequately promoted his books. (As we've all known to happen.) Maybe he's producing quality books that just don't appeal to a mass audience. There could be many reasons. But this hypothesis only allows for one: he's not a very good writer. And that's too simplistic a method for making that determination.

M.B. said...

Hi Joe,

Joe said: Ultimately, people decide what they like on a one-on-one book-by-book basis.

I think books are like any other product, and most people don't actually decide what they like on a one-on-one basis. They decide what they like based on marketing and hype and social acceptance. End displays and Oprah and "Ohmigod you haven't read DaVinci Code?"

I'm not disparaging that selection criteria, or the people that read a book because Oprah or the New York Times tells them they should. I just think it underscores the importance of promotion, self or otherwise, for the writer. Most people like what other people tell them is good, and what other people tell us is good is part of what develops our own concept of "good." Art may be subjective, but taste is a matter of social acceptance and marketing manipulation.

Heather B. Moore said...

I've had to give myself permission to NOT write every day. Even when I've met my weekly word count goal, I have to talk myself into taking a day off. It's great if some people can write every day, but it's certainly doesn't distinguish the writer or his/her success. Don't put the pressure on yourself. It's not okay to miss a deadline though. Find the balance.

And I LOVE the comment about writers block. So may people ask me about that. I tell them that I don't have TIME for writers block. I basically have 2 free hours a day to write, unless I want to get up at 4 a.m. Mulling over a plot is left for carpool-driving.

Thanks for the post.

Marcus said...

I think it's great that you're telling newbie writers that it's okay to not write every day. There are too many damn writers out there as it is, and whatever you can do to thin the ranks is fine by me.

Maria said...

I would just like to say that I get farmer's block. Sometimes I just do not know if it is the right time to plant--and where to put the green onions this year? I need to till that area, but tilling is hard and I really don't want to start until the tomatoes are completely done.

Is it still too hot cilantro to germinate? What about fall snap peas? I love those, but they don't like the heat.

So then, ultimately, I sit and stare ath the garden. Maybe I pull a weed or two. Maybe I go check the forecast. Or maybe I just sit and think about all of it and am blocked by indecision for days.

:>)

Lisa said...

Thanks for effectively killing that myth about all the mystery and magic that goes into writing. Now how am I supposed to negotiate longer deadlines if I can't pretend writing is hard and takes time to be nuanced just right?

I've thought the mystery to be a pretty piece of bull pucky for some time. It's refreshing to hear someone else fess up. :)

JA Konrath said...

The very very very last thing readers and bookstores need are writers who don't take time - struggle or not - to write the best books they can.

Subjective. Name ten authors who don't write the best books they can. Also show me a correlation between the time it takes to write a book, the "quality" of the book, and the success of a book.

There's none. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

So me someone who agonizes over every sentence, and I'll show you a drama queen.

A really good anything -book, cure for cancer, good parent takes a lot of time, effort, and patience.

Again, "good" is unprovable. But time does not equal good. You can take two weeks to write a book, and have it be enjoyed by the majority who read it, or six years to right a book, and haveit be despised by the majority of those who read it.

I'd say that writing any book requires effort and consideration.

If a writer strives to create something meaningful (whatever that means) that's fine, as long was they don't whine about it or ever say, "I really tried to create something meaningful," which reeks of self-importance.

Here's why I have a problem with this idea that "sales = quality."

Sales is an objective way to determine a book's popularity. "Quality" is subjective. Books have no intrinsic value.

They decide what they like based on marketing and hype and social acceptance.

They decide what to read based on these criteria, among others, but what they like involves many other factors. Again, people often change their opinions, and many things influence opinions.

There are too many damn writers out there as it is, and whatever you can do to thin the ranks is fine by me.

The ranks thin themselves, and writing every day has little to do withit.

Lori said...

Seriously, I cannot stop laughing!

I totally agree with you on writer's block. I've posted about the absurdity of it and tried shaking people into recognizing it for what it really is - an excuse not to write.

I don't write every day. I write on days when the projects are due or the blog post comes to mind. Muse? I'd have to look that one up. Not sure exactly what that is beyond Hollywood babble.

It's ridiculous to think what we do is so damned difficult that we have to suffer over punctuation marks or lament over dangling modifiers. The world doesn't end and people don't die if we screw up (well, unless we write them dead, but then they're not real people, are they?). We entertain. We may educate (if we write insurance licensing courses that leave us blind with boredom, but I digress). We don't suffer for our craft - well, unless the bastard doesn't pay and we have to chase them down with expensive attorneys in tow, but is that really suffering?

Great post.

Anonymous said...

In architecture, which building has more intrinsic value:

1)A museum, Rococo style
2)A home, Colonial style
3)A stadium, Greek Revival style

They have different features, and different choices of ornament.

Saying that the museum is somehow better than the other two because (touch back of wrist to forehead) it has agonizingly intricate detail in its facade, and it is designed expressly to hold *A!*R!*T!* misses the point completely.

The museum would be way too stinking cold to live in, and there's no good place for a rock stage. If well designed, the three buildings all have intricate detail in service of their functions. Likewise, different genres of writing.

Sometimes you just want a "cozy mystery" experience. The intricate detail there is supporting a friendly atmosphere, human relationships, and an interesting story that engages the reader in the mental search for a solution.

Sometimes you want a "thriller" experience. The intricate detail there is an interweaving of cause and effect, suspense, and the pattern of pulling the reader through the book in a visceral search for survival.

Sometimes you want a "literary" experience. The intricate detail there is on the sound of the words, and a nuanced exploration of human experience. Contrasted with mental or visceral, the experience is largely aesthetic and social.

To write an excellent (or even publishable) book in any genre (including literary/mainstream) requires a command of a great number of variables. I have the most respect for writers who have demonstrated command of multiple genres. If a writer is merely literary, or an architect merely designs museums, they cannot (in my mind) be considered a master.

Dal Jeanis

Anonymous said...

I've occasionally been known to have "programmers block"...

Jeremy said...

well coming from being a tradesman myself(whether it being laying bricks or a farmer)our jobs are repetitive and therefore we don't get brick layers block because we already know what were doing, kind of like we are programmed for instance. so when laying bricks for each and every different house we build we are not trying to work out a new and different way to do it each time, where as i think a writer must be very creative in each and every different piece they write so as not be repetitive and uncreative. Plus i think it is very ignorant to think that something physically hard is the same as something mentally hard.

Anonymous said...

The responses I've seen so far to this post are so wishy washy. It seems that these people lack the confidence to outright challenge you. They "think" they agree with you, but they're not sure because they really don't have minds of their own, or they think they're "supposed to" agree with you, even though they don't, but they're afraid to really admit it...

I think this post is essentially worthless trash.

You wrote: "Many writers say you have to write every day."

Your comment: "That's BS", and "Write when you can".

This may work for you, but not necessarily for others, and I would say especially not for newbies.

"Write when you can" encourages procrastination. There's always something else to do - household chores, a day job, or something mindless like Facebook, or something useless (like reading this particular blog post). Scheduling daily writing time is important.

Your original statement should have read not "Many writers say", but "The majority of successful writers say..." You are the first successful writer I've seen that disagrees with the importance of writing every day. Maybe you're just trying to be controversial.

"If your job is to be creative, performing on cue is a must" - and how is this done? - By practicing every single day, even if you don't feel like it. That's how Picasso became the artist he was, that's how Eddie Van Halen became the guitarist he is. Being creative requires regularly exercising the brain just as being an athlete requires regularly exercising the body. Sure, some people are naturally gifted right from the start, but they will never reach their true potential without practicing on a regular basis.

Your post is full of hypocrisy: "And please don't overplay your own importance" - that's exactly what you're doing in this post.

You present your view in this post as if you are THE authority on the subject, as if YOU have all the answers, and YOUR way is the ONLY way. I've found that the most dangerous people in the world are the ones that think they have all of the answers. They can only see things from their own perspective. They are incapable of seeing things from someone else's viewpoint. You obviously have this attitude. I would say it's a safe guess that when it comes to politics, you happen to be a Conservative - as "tunnel-vision" is a typical characteristic they possess.

Regarding: "A famous writer once said - There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you." And your response: "I'd offer - Being trapped in a burning car seems a bit worse." This is very "cute", but it only shows that on top of all of your arrogance, you are also incapable of understanding poetic thought.

I don't have time right now to continue commenting on this post, but I think I've gotten my point across.