On writing: Staying true to oneself?

I came across a post the other day where a (published) author was asking his readers what they thought about the amount of violence and torture and unpleasant deaths occurring in a fantasy novel. The one he was currently writing contained a lot of graphic detail and he wanted to know whether he should tone it down.

A number of his respondents to his blog said things which amounted to: “It’s your book and you should stay true to yourself/to your tale.”

I am not so sure it is that simple.

Yes, there are times when an author needs to stand up for what they believe in, or for the demands of their story – but we want also to be published. We want publishers to make a profit so that they will give us another contract. We want our readers to be delighted with our novels so that they will buy the next one. We want to give reading pleasure to other people. (Besides, praise feeds our voracious egos!)

I look upon the publication of a book of mine as a sort of unwritten contract between me and the reader: the reader pays money, some of which ultimately gets to me, and I write the best book I can in return, so as not to disappoint. The trouble is…what defines “the best” I can do?

Well, it doesn’t mean that I deliberately write a story based on what I think will please my audience – you know, “Let’s throw in a bit of gratuitous sex here just to perk things up even if uit has nothing to do with the plot”. It doesn’t mean, “Let’s tone down the anti-religious tone of this story otherwise it will upset the Christians in the audience”, as seems to have happened with the filming of Pullman’s Golden Compass.

But on the other hand, a writer who doesn’t consider his audience and try to please them – within the bounds of his storyline and themes – seems a bit arrogant to me. “Here, this is my book, and I don’t give a damn what you think about it. And don’t you dare criticize it, either. It’s my book and I’ll darn well write what I like.” It is an attitude that surfaces in the occasional very successful author from time to time.

I guess it’s all about balance in the end.
What do you think?

Oddly enough, the author mentioned above left the violence in, but not because of an arrogant attitude to those who would read his book. In fact, he was uneasy about the level of violence himself. He left it in because others told him to do so … in other words, to please the readers.


On writing: Staying true to oneself? — 11 Comments

  1. What I think is that if you try to please everyone, and try to take out what just might happen to make someone uncomfortable, you end up with a lot of very bland books with a certain degree of same-ness about them.

    I think if you (generic-you) are going to ‘do’ violence or sex, do it well, and limit it to 1-2 scenes per book, but don’t skimp on those. Do them well. Make the sex sensual and the violence horrific. That is much more memorable than splattering blood and guts all over the book in odd sentences here and there.

    My $0.02

  2. But on the other hand, a writer who doesn’t consider his audience and try to please them – within the bounds of his storyline and themes – seems a bit arrogant to me. “Here, this is my book, and I don’t give a damn what you think about it. And don’t you dare criticize it, either. It’s my book and I’ll darn well write what I like.” It is an attitude that surfaces in the occasional very successful author from time to time.

    Ooh! Can I name names??? Can I? Huh? Huh? Okay, I won’t, but I’m so sick of this happening. All unpublished (novelwise) as I am, I think my motto for when I do get published (see the positive attitude!) will be “Write every book like it’s your first because to someone out there, it is.” (disclaimer, by first, I mean that novel with the pazaz and wow to grab that editor by the jowls and not let go until they sign you up to their publishing house.)

    Having said that, I think there is a balance between writing something you want to write and something you think the audience wants to read. But then there are those who take it too far, becoming formulaic all their books are pretty much the same story with differently named characters. Again, I could name names, but I will resist.

    Cheers, Lisa.

    PS Glenda, you are not among the afore-not-mentioned. 😉

  3. Of course you can’t please everybody no matter what you write. Some will hate the book, others adore it. I would say, not being an author, be true to yourself, but don’t add anything just for the sake of it. It appears to me that too many authors put sex in their books because it sells. Does it really? If its a good story, well told, gratuitous sex or violence is totally unnecessary.

  4. Ohhh glenda, huge topic! But trying to split it down a bit, and trying to be brief:

    Writer as Reader: I imagine most genre writers are also readers. So they are usually part of the audience for whom they are writing – and write the kind of books they would like to read. That helps.

    Writer as Commercial Artist: Art is apparently about communication. On a professional/commercial level I suppose it has to balance enlightenment with entertainment, though the balance scale can shift widely. To sell it to the readers/audience (as opposed to just the publishers), as well as using words and concepts that will be accessible one has to make it entertaining or exciting to grab and keep their attention. The most thoroughly academic tome needs a little wit and colour to make it palatable. At the other end of the scale, even the most action-packed novel or high octane movie (or even porn movie with several, um, encounters) needs some kind of plausible plotline or ‘suspense hook’ for the punters to pick it up. In the world of video games, it seems that players prefer it when even the most hack-and-slash arcade game has some form of story structure and mental challenges or conundrums, as counterweight to all that killing.

    Entertainment is of course a business, and professional writers need to put food on the table. Some writers will do a sideline of writing pot-boilers or short stories for journals with specific requirements, to keep a flow of cash coming in (or in the case of a certain well-known married couple who co-authored astrology books back in the 1980s, the husband also used to write soft porn novels (anonymously, natch) to help pay the bills). Others will try to tailor their main work to suit the needs and desires of their audience, hoping to boost sales that way. And others will write almost exclusively to suit the demands of the market, cashing in on whatever the public wants most at that moment. Personally I don’t think I could do that (I don’t have the adaptable talent for it, and I have delusions of wanting to communicate my own unconventional thoughts). But I don’t think one can label any one particular approach to commercial writing right or wrong because people write (and enjoy writing) for their own differing reasons – and we all have to find some way to make ends meet.

    Writer as Arbiter: This is the toughest call, when it comes to writing something you’re not happy about. If it is something that is demanded by the story and the nature of the subject itself, that is something that perhaps one has to grit one’s teeth and endure. Sometimes we need to write about situations or characters that are unpleasant, shocking or deeply disturbing – they are things that need to be said, or which form a significant part of the way the plot develops and unfolds. I suppose one could say that they are things that the writer feels the audience needs to be told and to think about, whether it is comfortable reading or not. (So it’s more about ‘enlightenment’ than ‘entertainment’, perhaps.)

    On the other hand, writing something that makes one uncomfortable simply because one is told that that is what the audience wants – well, I’m not happy about that. I don’t hold with the theory that the customer (or reader) is always right. I mean look at some of the governments that get elected by democratic voters. And as a genre writer, chances are that you are part of the readership yourself; so if you’re not comfortable with it, perhaps a lot of your fellow readers won’t be either.

    My own quirky rule of thumb is to consider whether I would be comfortable with letting my mother, family and friends read what I write. Not whether they would like it, let alone agree with it, but whether I could defend my writing of it with better reason than simply ‘that’s what the punters want’. But that’s only my own approach to my work, not a universal recommendation.

    Sorry folks, that was hardly brief, was it?

  5. Not brief, no, but interesting. I guess one of the basic problems is trying to second guess what readers want anyway. How do we know? Everyone is different.

    However, as a writer, if you have been writing a certain way in book 1, let’s say fantasy with a sweetly romantic bias, and then you suddenly switch to something much darker, more violent, more overtly sexual in book 2, are you “betraying” your readers?

    I dunno.

    I don’t think I could write something that I felt really uncomfortable with simply to appeal to a certain sector of the market, but I am aware of this unwritten contract I have with the reader…

    This process of getting feedback from beta readers is an intensely interesting process. I think I will tak about that some more tomorrow.

  6. My opinion (from the media / movie making point of view :P):

    I suppose it’s kinda like making movies based after video games – most video game movies are either flops, or close calls. The fans just don’t know what they want because you see – if the director does it his way, it’s a deviation of the usual and if it’s done the fan’s way, the movie becomes utterly crap and totally unwatchable instead.

    So like an author being true to themselves, a similar question can be asked: how does a video game movie be true to its origins, an already prepared successful formula?

    P/S: Ru brought this post to my attention, and he thought I should comment. Just my two cents really. 😛

  7. Don’t think it’s “betraying” your readers, glenda, no. But e.g. if like Katherine Kurtz you sidestep from fantasy to occult thrillers because you want to explore working in another genre, not all your readers will follow you … but then you’ll pick up new readers as well.

  8. Hrugaar, what about changing horses in the middle of a trilogy? giving the impression that this going to be sweetness and light and fun and ending up tragic and dark?

    What about, say Brian Stableford’s Empire of Evil, that starts off being (you think) fantasy, and ends up pure sf?

    Patty – it seems to me that a lot of the latest fantasy is very gritty with much blood and gore and an unbelievable attrition rate in characters. How do you feel about it?

    Lisa, I’m not saying a word. But you could try googling Anne Rice, Laurell K.Hamilton and Patricia Cornwall.

    Sam – that’s a problem every time you change from one media to another, and this one must be harder than usual because it also involves going from the interactive to the passive. Seems to me it’s kind of doomed from the start as far as gamers are concerned.

  9. How I feel about the gory trend in fantasy?

    Having just finished just such a book as I think you refer to, I’d say yes, there is – in this book at least – unnecessary gore. The story could easily be told without quite so much of it. Especially since it seemed to be there merely for effect.

    One of my very very favourite movies Independence Day has a scene where the main character finds a space ship with an alien inside. I first saw this movie on a plane flight to Japan, and thought a gory fight with the alien was edited out for the sake of the all-age audience (we later see the character dragging the alien through the desert – yep – I’ve seen this movie about 50 times). The story was well-told without a gory fight, and knowing the movie industry, I thought they’d grab a chance for gore whenever possible. Only later did I find out that there is no gory fight scene. Imagine my pleasant surprise.

    Similarly, I think the book I’ve just read could have done without the scattered lines describing rolling heads and spilling guts.

    I’ve recently read another book which had no deaths to speak of, but much more intense violence, because it’s actually described very deep in the main character’s pov, so we can feel him suffer cuts and broken bones.

    That’s really what I mean when I say: if you do violence, do it well and don’t toss in a few horrific lines here and there.

    I really do think less of books where I notice this scattered-violence-for-the-sake-of-it.

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