Monday, July 16, 2007

For Whom The Inkwell Tolls

Being an aspiring novelist, it's rather shameful that I haven't written at all on the craft itself here, isn't it? Well, it's time to remedy that.

Today's musings on writing? The poor saps you managed to sucker into reading your tripe. I mean, your audience. When I was taking writing workshops in college, it was always emphasized to us that we had to know our audience - to have a clear picture in our heads of who we wanted to read our novel, or short stories, or poetry. There was an interesting assortment in the particular workshop I'm recalling here. There was the guy writing short stories wherein something always moved the male protagonist to tears - and those guys would cry at the drop of a hat. Then the woman starting a novel about a confused young bartender trying to make sense of her life in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks - a cheap cash-in? (Well, probably not, she didn't give off that impression, anyway.) And the older woman starting a novel about a woman running a brothel in the old west. She got criticized by the professor for writing genre fiction in that class. But isn't all writing genre fiction in some sense? It seems almost conceited to me to insist that your writing cannot be labeled, that it's simply fine literature, or however you prefer to look at your espionage story where America gets them terr'ists.

As for myself, I didn't really have a specific audience when I started writing my first novel project back then. (I will someday. I have too many good one-liners in there to keep to myself. And if that doesn't hint at quality literature, I don't know what does.) I just sat in the class caught between two frames of mind. In one, I was writing something brilliant, funny, and edgy, which would blow everyone's mind - in short, I was too cool for school. (Do people actually still say that?) In the other, I knew that while I had some modicum of raw talent, but couldn't let it go to my head (That's to be saved after one has at least one book in print. The main purpose in creating anything, after all, is earning the right to look down one's nose at people - till they jam a fork in there, anyway, as you're inviting.), and that I had to keep an open mind throughout the course, as there was much to be learned from it. And besides, I was looking forward to making friends and engaging in thoughtful dialog with fellow aspiring authors about the craft, what inspires us, and so forth. All that goofy crap you'd expect to see in some Lifetime movie about deep friendships among women in college. Why I transplanted images like that to an idealization of a writing workshop, I don't know. But I'd wager it probably has to do with hitting my head as a kid at some point. That, or all those drugs I've never actually done.

If there's one thing life excels at, as we're all aware, it's smashing the fuck out of idealizations. You actually think she'd give you a chance? Yeah, right. Sincerely believe that the free market will take care of everyone's needs? Good thinking, Einstein. Think that month-old pizza's still good? Think again. We were like a pack of vicious wolves in that workshop. Two people would hand out copies of their latest work - be it a short story or chapter from their novel - and over each half of the three-hour workshop, one of them would be eaten alive. Why didn't you break your text up into smaller paragraphs, huh? Whaddaya mean you can't give us an entire self-contained short story in a novel chapter? We want our answers now. Whoa there, that's not how you spell habeas corpus.

It was brutal, to say the least. And I have a feeling it only would've gotten worse, had I stuck with further workshops. (As opposed to signing up for less interesting, but far more required courses, so I could finish school in a leisurely fashion after five years, with a degree that won't have the employers lapping at your heels.) So even my descriptions are probably an exaggeration of something that I only experienced a small amount of. But being an embarrassingly sensitive individual at times (As opposed to the stereotypical male I'm supposed to be with an emotional hide thicker than leather. Apparently I'm supposed to care about organized sports too, but to dismiss it in the only appropriate manner - fuck that shit.), it's not a pleasant feeling when you've worked hard on something for many hours, and it all comes down to your peers competing to tear you apart. I think I got off easy though, all things considered, as my writing was pretty grammatically correct, and I was the only one in there really making an effort to make my readers laugh. (And I know, this blog has been more on the boring side lately, with not enough efforts at snarky comedy, but I'm still getting used to writing this way. And I kind of figure a more intelligent (Sort of.) approach to this for at least a little while would draw in and keep more potential readers than blatantly writing in my more comic misanthropic asshole voice, considering how alienating that can be.) It's hard not to take criticism personally on some levels. And I empathized while others were torn to shreds before my eyes, though I rarely spoke up. (Despite my rambling here, I'm a pretty quiet person in the real world.)

Anyway, boring vague details of that personal story from years ago aside, it all came down to a point - who are you writing for? This is a question all writers must face at some point. If you avoid it, it'll beat you with a sack of rusty doorknobs like the dirty vagabond you are. Yeah, I'm talking to you, train-hopper. Make up another tall tale, why don'tcha? About some guy who's literally larger than life and eats lots of huge pancakes, back in the old days. Anaheim Albert! The legendary obstetrician. Jolly good chap, yadda yadda yadda, blue ox, dead at twenty-five from heart complications caused by gigantism.

Ahem. I kind of got off track there. But the question still remains. Do you write for yourself? In its own way, that can be the most fun, and produce some of the most interesting of stories. All you have to do is just cut loose and have fun with your writing. If the author's having fun, it can be a pretty sure bed that the reader will too. At least, in theory. There's a line, though. If you're just having fun, you may end up writing stories without any meaning. Though perhaps that could be your intention. And we all use elements from our own lives and experiences in our writing, it's just a part of what we have to work with in the writing process. But you don't want to write a story that's simply about yourself. While your life and the idea sin your fiction often overlap, you want to be cautious that you don't bog things down with your own life's story and risk becoming self-indulgent. Self-indulgent tales tend to come in extremes, being either rich and compelling, or boring and selfish. My belief is simply that while it's good to write for yourself - and to write because you love it - you should not write only for yourself. This is something I'm working out with 27 Days, admittedly, as I'm trying to be bold (See: Probably incredibly stupid.) in confessing my long-term unspoken love for a woman through the story itself, integrating that aspect subtextually, aiming to enrich the writing with it in what ways I can, rather than distract from it. Whether or not it'll work within the story or reach her heart, only time will tell.

If not for yourself, do you write for another? In order to stave off excessive self-indulgence, it's important, and emphasized time and time again to know who you're writing for. In my case, it's an individual as well, wanting to write something that would evoke feeling in her, from laughter to tears to fondness and love. But admittedly, I don't have a set core demographic I'm targeting with my work. I feel like it almost takes away from writing to think like that, to effectively market and sell your work to a set group of potential readers. In fact, thinking about a specific group like that is distracting. I'd rather write my work for both myself and for she whom I want to entertain with my writing, then - pretentious as it already sounds, after my earlier ranting - publishing it as simply literature rather than genre fiction. This way, anyone who might be interested in reading the sort of stories I write - frequently comedies about young people coping with the world today with tragic undercurrents - would be able to easily find and pick it up. I'm not sure if that'd be foolish or not, focusing on writing my work for what it is rather than a set demographic to sell it to. Perhaps it's selfish, not wanting to focus on targeting a certain group or another, and perhaps it's the sort of thing that'd keep me from being able to find an agent and publisher at all. But I want to write books that will make people laugh, and also affect them in some way. Books waiting to be found on shelves, picked up and experienced by anyone at all intrigued by the story premises on the covers. And most of all, I want to keep writing stories she would enjoy, whether or not I reach her heart and see her again at any point. An ongoing tribute of sorts, writing both because I love to write, and an individual exists whom I love to write for.

Makes me the king of the fools, doesn't it?

Stay tuned later this week, as I blog about E3 last week! It'll be tremendously dull for anyone who doesn't care about video games - as most quite understandably do not. I'll try to write something else more meaningful later this week too, to make it up to the rest of you.

(I may not exactly have readers yet - that I'm aware of anyway - but that's no excuse for not writing more posts that might interest more of them, whenever they conveniently materialize out of thin air, anyway.)

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