Publishing is personal. A stark woman with a swift, purposeful gait, a writer, reminded me so some years back. She and her husband drove from British Columbia to San Diego in a Winnebago to attend her first-ever writers’ conference, the SCWC. They parked on the street and slumbered in it to avoid paying for a room. Like most, she’d been writing in isolation, bereft of empirical feedback on the book she’d long been laboring. The conference, for her precious pages, would serve as delivery ward to readers (albeit writers). It was her baby’s debut.
It didn’t go well.
This is back when the SCWC was still relatively young, 1992 or 1993, before newly adopted hotel regulations, punishing state laws and utterly reasonable common sense ruled the day and, at least for us, the night, thus we were not yet stifled in our cavalier indifference to early morning jubilee. Writers in revelry, hanging out in the hotel’s expansive atrium, awaiting the close of each successive “Rogue” read & critique workshop, that began at 9 p.m. and ended only when the stamina of the most diehard participants waned. The successive closure of each Rogue resulted in more contributors to the conversation, and a systemic bloating of the overall orgy of intellect in which we regaled. Great fun. Until it was not.
The writer from BC seemed to appear from nowhere. She confronted me full-frontal, her face the color of eggplant: “You said that I’d be safe. I read my work and was humiliated,” she said. “I was humiliated!”
She caught me off guard. “Whose workshop did you attend?”
“Hannah. You said to go to Jerry Hannah.” Then she raised a hand to slap me.
“Stop.” I cautioned. “Let me look into it. Just do me a favor and consider any possible merit of what was said about your manuscript, is all I’m asking. Please.”
I remembered the phone conversation with this writer. Like many, it was long, addressing trepidations several whose work had never been exposed to qualified critique share; fear of exposing your baby to a roomful of possible hyenas is scary; seeing your baby flayed and dismembered openly before you, a powerfully dissuasive thing. Thing I knew was that novelist Jerry “C.J.” Hannah, a founding SCWC faculty member, who also established the “Pirate” late-night read & critique workshops at the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference, had long ago set the standard for how to conduct a safe and efficient read & critique workshop.
Jerry would never allow a writer to be purposefully humiliated.
“Sleep on it, ” I suggested to the outraged writer. “Then, you know, maybe try some different read and critiques tomorrow and get additional feedback.”
“No.” The outraged writer was adamant. “I want nothing more to do with this conference.”
This was Friday night, wee hours into Saturday morning.
Quantity Versus Quality
There’s been a lot of debate about author output recently. The argument, at least from many indie “authorities,” is that the quantity of titles published–that is, uploaded for purchase, most with a page-count of around 200 or so–trumps the need for an exceptional quality of craft. Opponents of this mindset eschew the rush to premature e-publication and instead advocate taking the necessary time to write a truly great story, exceptionally well-crafted. Proponents of the former often cite the need for volume to lure readership and sell more books, while those of the latter believe that really good books, even if the author’s output is infrequent, are key to winning over a devoted following.
For some the issue is about money, while for others it’s about authorial integrity or pride. For others, still, it’s simply vanity. Whatever reason motivates one to author a novel for commercial publication, the real question that need be asked is this: How good is good enough?
The answer lies in the “why” that every author must first truthfully acknowledge: Why did I write this story?
Readers, Writers And Expectations
As with most things publishing, there is no single right or wrong answer, only myriad contradictory perspectives and experiences. In order for an author to be successful, I believe it boils down to the author’s objective from the get-go. Achieving that objective is inevitably dictated by the needs of the reader. Thing is, the needs of readers are not all equal. Therein lies the conundrum and, frankly, where the crux of both sides’ argument become moot.
Think of a television audience. Think of some of the series in recent years widely lauded as hallmarks of exceptional in this new “Golden Age of Television,” shows such as The Wire, The Sopranos, Deadwood, Justified, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, et al. “Must-see” TV, right? Mostly shows found on premium cable channels, often far less episodically stand-alone in structure than many of their traditional, episodically stand-alone oriented network counterparts, still flourishing and remaining wildly popular on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox.
Consider the expectations of, say, the targeted audience of Game of Thrones–an epic fantasy with so many sweeping, Byzantine plotlines as to tangle both intestines, populated by so many instrumental characters that it’s almost impossible to jump into any given episode and have a clue of what’s going on without turning back to the beginning in effort to catch up. Contrast that with, say, Law & Order or CSI, basically procedurals where, pretty much any given week, a crime occurs, is investigated, solved, and justice is served (or not), but at least the primary storyline of the episode is resolved. No obligation to the viewer from one week to the next other than to meet his or her basic expectations of what the show will provide: familiar entertainment that sufficiently attains the series’ established standard of quality.
Simply for the sake of argument … so what if the storytelling of Person of Interest or The Black List isn’t at the level of, say, House of Cards or Ray Donovan? They’re all pretty damn good shows, as far as I’m concerned, but I can pretty much tune in any given episode of two of them, not be utterly lost, feel quite entertained when they’re over, then return to my life. Attempting to do so with the other two only leaves me frustrated and wanting to go back and binge-watch an entire season to figure out what’s what and where we’re at in seasons-long story arcs. It’s not necessarily an issue of quality, but expectation of a level of entertainment I want to invest in being satisfied. As Maximus declares to his Coliseum spectators in Gladiator, “Did I not entertain you?”
Readers are our audience. Readers also have expectations of being rewarded. Some just seem to find “good enough” is reward enough. Writing to those readers often works. The level of quality to shoot for is a personal choice, dependent on your objective. It’s the why.
Bloodbath And Beyond
The adage, “write the book you want to read,” holds true, but the thrill of successfully impacting a stranger across the page in the manner intended; to connect and viscerally resonate with a reader–remember that sensation when your words did so for the very first time, and every other after?
I do. It’s most often my why.
A writer must set an objective to accomplish for the story s/he’s writing in order to achieve personal success. Achieving that objective is wholly dependent on the why of writing it. Whether it’s to inspire or inform or enlighten or amuse or merely afford a reader sheer escapism to another world, another life–just entertain–is a consideration. Whether to simply try and rake in as many book sales as you can, is another. Either way, your words have value. Your words can make a difference.
Regardless of genre, it’s imperative to recognize the level of quality required to accomplish your objective, write your way to the best story you possibly can, and fulfill the promise of that which you first aspired. Otherwise, what’s the point? Who here among us, really, is qualified to judge those writers who fail to meet our definition of literary merit, let alone personal success?
Being Your Best Writer
Final night of the conference, 3:15-ish in the morning. Monday. Second-to-last Rogue read & critique workshop lets out and exhausted writers file their way into the hotel atrium to join the plenty of us who remain.
I’m idly luxuriating on a pastel-colored sofa (sea foam, I believe they called its color). I look up to discover the outraged, humiliated writer who confronted me Friday night.
Every discussion, all mirth, all that is pleasant among a plot of writers gathered around coolers full of booze, surrounded by musical instruments and newfound hooker-acquaintances who wandered in off El Cajon Boulevard to chill with we amiable sorts in search of stories, immediately stopped.
I stood. I thought she’d left. I checked all the daytime workshops both Saturday and Sunday, and couldn’t find her. But here she was.
She hugged me, longer than needed. I wasn’t prepared.
“I’m sorry,” she said, eyes full of wet, not drippy. “You were right. I was too raw. It wasn’t good enough. I know that now and I want to thank you. I’m going home and I’m going to write better. I’m going to be my best writer.”
Then she left.
My hope is that she did go home and become her best writer. My hope remains that we all do, however way readers decide.