What Stace had to say on Tuesday, July 13th, 2010
but is it art?

This is something I’ve been thinking of for a while, and have wanted to post about for a while, too. It’s probably the first post of a few, and I warn you, I may ramble a bit.

A few weeks ago over on the Romance Divas forum a discussion was started about honesty in your writing, and what that means. It moved on into discussions of art and connection to your work as art, which I’m also going to discuss. So basically we’re going to have a big mishmash of Stacia’s Deep Thoughts about writing, which will hopefully be fun for everyone, but of course we’ll see, won’t we?

Anyway. The initial question, posted by the lovely and talented Kate Pearce, was whether or not we, as writers, compromise ourselves–change what we want to write–in order to sell the work or make it “acceptable” to a particular audience; do we stop ourselves from writing things readers might react badly to. Keeping in mind we’re discussing genre fiction, and genre fiction has certain conventions and reader expectations. All of which are, of course, perfectly fine; readers are entitled to expect the book they pick up will be what the cover and bookstore shelving or whatever promises them it will be.

But at what point do we stop writing what we want to write in order to be successful? At what point do we suffer for refusing to do so?

The thing is, your writing should excite you. Not ‘excite” as discussed in the Strumpet series, lol (although sometimes it should, depending on what you’re writing), but excite as in fire you up intellectually and creatively. I firmly believe that if what you’re writing doesn’t do that, the reader will sense it. The writing will be flat. The story will seem cliche. And frankly, a flat, cliche story stands very little chance of selling (yes, there are exceptions, but in general, and especially when it comes to first-time authors or those just beginning careers). This post isn’t about writing techniques, though. It’s about the deeper aspects of writing, the emotional stuff, the stuff we couch in skill.

But how much is too much? What if the story that really excites you is one so out there that the odds of anyone wanting to buy or read it are infinitesimal? I believe fantasy, especially, is a genre with lots of room for growth and change. I believe readers on the whole are a lot smarter than some people give them credit for, and a lot more willing to and capable of stepping onto that ledge and seeing where the writer wants to take them. But if you’re writing a cannibal romance, you’re probably going to have a hard time, let’s face it.

We all know compromise is part of life, or rather, there is an element of compromise in life. We all know that we can stick to our guns, and write that romance where the hero and heroine sit down at the end to a nice big plate of baked human hearts with artichokes and mushrooms, with the freshly slaughtered carcasses stored in their deep freeze, but that may limit our publishing options. You might be able to sell that cannibal love story to a horror publisher or imprint, but it’s probably not going to fly with genre romance (hey, I could be wrong, this is just my personal feeling).

The problem–and the fundamental question here–is, at what point are you compromising too much? What is your work to you; is it stories you write for a laugh and to pay the bills, or is it an expression of yourself? (That’s not to say stories you write for a laugh and to pay the bills can’t be an expression of yourself. The difference is in how you view them, to some degree.) In other words, how much do you care about what you write, how much of yourself do you put into it? How deep do you go? How honest are you?

How deep should you go? How much do you need to expose yourself, if at all? How much should you expose yourself?

And how much of your decision is practicality, and how much is fear?

This touches on a larger, more fundamental question, which is whether or not fiction is art and whether or not writers are artists. And whether or not genre fiction is art. I think we’ll talk about that and the implications of it a bit more later, but we can’t really have this discussion without at least mentioning it first, so we have some kind of lens to view the discussion through.

My personal feeling is that every writer puts something of themselves into their work, whether they mean to or not.

Writing books is in some ways akin to exposing yourself. You write a book. You pour large parts of yourself into it. The characters may or may not be you–usually they aren’t–but if you’re really digging deep into the POV character, you are by necessity accessing parts of yourself and putting them on the page, no matter how ugly or embarrassing or painful they may be; no matter how joyous or fun or delightful they may be.

A book is the expression of truth as you see it and experience it. Every moment, every scene, every sentence is you expressing something important to you, no matter what it is. No matter what the plot is, no matter the setting or genre, you’re telling a story that came from you. You have to be in there; if you’re not, where and how is the book connected to you and to the rest of the world? If you’re not, what exactly are you writing, and is it what you really want to write or is it just something you’re writing to make money? How proud are you, or can you be, of the latter?

I think these are questions that can and do make a lot of people uncomfortable, and I have some thoughts on why, which we’ll discuss in the next post. But this is what I know. Writing something you really put yourself into is terrifying. Doing anything you really put yourself into is terrifying. And it is that way for a lot of reasons. Writing that way is akin to sharing your deepest secrets with a lot of strangers, and inviting them to poke and prod at your weakest points, your deepest insecurities. There are people out there who will look at your work and decide they know what kind of person you really are because of what you wrote. There are people who will decide that by exposing yourself in your work you have invited them into every other part of your life; look at the types of questions some erotic romance writers are regularly asked about their sex lives. There are people who will hate your book and be unable to separate that from you as a person. There are people who will decide that because you’ve written a certain type of character or story you deserve to be shamed or shunned; they will confuse you with the work to the extent that not just the work but you yourself become an object of derision, as if you are a book yourself with no feelings. And maybe they shouldn’t be able to completely separate you; who can really say? If you’re putting yourself that deeply into your work, are you actually stripping yourself, baring yourself? If they disagree with your truth, don’t they have a right to say that, and to say it about you and not just your work?

Perhaps eliciting that kind of reaction is a good thing. People may dislike the timid, but they don’t tend to hate them with such a passion. Maybe if you’ve done something that makes people that angry, it’s a good thing. I’ve never been someone who believes that the purpose of art is to shock or anger. But can we say that if you do shock and anger people, you’ve obviously touched them on some kind of deep level? And that perhaps an emotional reaction of that depth is the purpose of writing, and thus the purpose of art?

Perhaps if people hate you because of something you’ve written it’s because you refused to stay in the box they wanted to put you in. People don’t like it when you’re not easy to classify; they don’t like it when you try to challenge what they expect you to be. There are people in this world who dislike it when others show depth or intellect; there are people who simply cannot handle disagreement with them or the idea that others see things differently, people who are incapable of stepping outside of their own worldviews for a moment. Those people exist in every field, in every country, in every place, all over the world (look at some of the arguments people have over science questions, or politics, or about whether or not Spiderman could beat Iron Man in a fight. I’m not saying everyone who dislikes or diagrees with something or someone is being small-minded, that’s not remotely what I mean. I’m just saying that when you expose yourself and your work, or your theories or opinions, to the wider world, you have to be prepared for all kinds of reactions).

But eliciting that kind of reaction can be terrifying, too. Unnerving. And it’s something we don’t always prepare ourselves for. Something I’m not sure we can prepare ourselves for. No one can predict what kind of reaction a piece of writing or a piece of art–whether they’re different things or the same thing–will get.

The thing is, I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t feel emotionally vulnerable about their work, no matter how light-hearted the work is. I don’t know a single writer who doesn’t feel, after writing an intense scene or finishing a novel, as if they’ve just spent several hours being psychoanalyzed and poked with sticks. No, our characters are not us. But if our books are the expression of truth as we see them, if our books are expressions of ourselves, then we have exposed ourselves. If we’ve been honest in our work then we have essentially invited strangers into our minds and hearts, into our psyches, and invited them to rummage around a bit.

We’re trying to connect with people. We’re trying to connect with readers. We’re trying to share an experience with them, make them think and feel, and do it in the most honest way we can. (We’re trying to entertain them first and foremost, of course, but this is about the deeper aspects of our work.) We want them to connect emotionally with what we’ve written; there is no greater compliment than to be told by a reader that your work made them cry (um, assuming it was a sad or emotional scene, of course. It’s not a compliment if your light comedy made a reader cry through its sheer awfulness. Nobody wants a reader to put down their book, drop to their knees, and scream, “Why is life so terrible?!”)

Isn’t creating something with the intent to elicit an emotional response in someone else, art? Isn’t that the purpose of art?

And if it is, why do we so often shy away from calling it that?

We’re going to talk about that on Thursday.

17 comments to “but is it art?”

  1. Betsy Dornbusch
    · July 13th, 2010 at 12:22 pm · Link

    First of all, I admit to scanning this quickly, as I just dropped by to let you know I’m enjoying UNHOLY GHOSTS.

    I’m teaching a class on critique and it’s been interesting to see how people react to critique. These are first timers, most of them haven’t been read by anyone but family. But you can see it all over their faces, even those with decent emotional distance, how deeply they’ve embedded SELF into their work. Honestly, I don’t think most of them realize it.

    I wrote a book called QUENCHER a little while back. It’s erotica, which of course make certain people sniff with derision, but it revolves around homosexuality, something I feel quite passionate about. I’m not gay, but I have relatives and friends who are and I’m pretty adamant about equal rights, etc. So writing that book put me out there in a few ways: baring my own sexuality and how I feel about others’ sexuality. But it wasn’t until I did a few interviews that I realized how much of myself I put into the book. I had friends and fans say how true to life it felt, and I was glad. I wouldn’t have been able to tackle the subject (I wrote it under contract with the world/theme already set) without that passion.

    As for the art question: I’ve made and sold a ton of art (mostly visual, some writing, some film). The most common question I get from non-artists is “How can you just let your art go like that?”

    But artists understand. For a lot of us, it’s not really art until someone else takes it in. (Admittedly, I also made art for me, in that case I was the someone.) To me a story isn’t really a story until it’s read by a real reader (not just a critter). I don’t write anything that isn’t meant to be read because that’s more than half the bargain for me. Really, I consider that a point of growth for me as an artist.

    Good, thought-provoking discussion. :)

    • Stace
      · July 15th, 2010 at 1:25 pm · Link

      Thanks Betsy!

      I agree on having other people see it; to me it’s not “real” until that happens. And congrats on your story! I really do think that when it’s something important to us, something that really matters, it’s obvious in the work; there’s a passion there that I don’t think can be faked.

      Thanks! I love seeing other people’s takes on it!

  2. The Mighty Buzzard
    · July 13th, 2010 at 1:10 pm · Link

    Oh come on, give me a hard one. How much you should compromise yourself to sell your work: until ‘as little as you have to’ becomes greater than ‘how much you’re willing to’. It’s an individual decision and screw anyone who disagrees.

    I have to disagree about any author putting a lot of themselves into their writing though. Most people are far too complex to ever do anything but scratch the surface of who they really are in one or even twenty books. Bear in mind I said complex rather than interesting. They’re also constantly changing; the person you think you know today may stab you in the back tomorrow. You may get the important bits but you still miss out on a hell of a lot of what makes them them.

    Isn’t creating something with the intent to elicit an emotional response in someone else, art?

    Yeah, with one caveat. If the response you’re trying to elicit is to piss off or deeply offend them, it’s called being an asshole rather than creating art. Primary motivation of the artist trumps all when determining whether art or assholery has happened.

    • Stace
      · July 15th, 2010 at 1:07 pm · Link

      Well, I do agree that I strongly dislike art whose sole purpose is to piss people off. I think it’s unoriginal, in the main.

      But lol, it’s not really a quiz (re “Give me a hard one next time”), it’s just supposed to make you think about what you put into things.

      And yes, I’m sure it varies from person to person. All I can go by is how much of myself I put into my work, and what I know of my friends who are also writers. But I certainly don’t know every writer out there, not by a long shot. :)

  3. Kate Pearce
    · July 13th, 2010 at 3:57 pm · Link

    I totally agree with you Stacia. When I started writing seriously about 10 years ago, I never intended to write what I ended up writing, I just decided I would be honest with my writing and take it where it needed to go, because otherwise, what was the point? I’m not equating this to having a message I wanted to share, or a platform because I didn’t have one, still don’t, although readers and reviewers constantly construct them for me.

    And that’s the part I didn’t expect, that by trying to be honest with myself and for creating a reaction and making a connection with readers, I’d also be opening myself up to criticism and their opinion of me as a person.

    That was incredibly hard to deal with at first, which is when I began to think about compromise, about how far I was willing to expose myself in my writing. I decided I have to write it as I see it and simply learn to protect myself better from other people’s opinions.

    I do think we undervalue ourselves as artists and a lot of that is because of how publishers treat us as a line on a balance sheet.

    • Stace
      · July 15th, 2010 at 1:10 pm · Link

      I agree, Kate. In today’s post I went into some of the other reasons why I think we undervalue ourselves; the pressure to be “professional” and distance ourselves from our work, the expectation that we not imply in any way that we think we’ve done something special, that sort of thing.

      And that’s the part I didn’t expect, that by trying to be honest with myself and for creating a reaction and making a connection with readers, I’d also be opening myself up to criticism and their opinion of me as a person.

      Totally. There’s no way to prepare for that, I don’t think, and it’s very scary.

  4. jjdebenedictis
    · July 14th, 2010 at 2:00 pm · Link

    Every novel written is valid art.

    But it’s not necessarily publishable.

    Publishable means a sizeable number of other people–people who are not you or your mom or your friends–will enjoy reading that book. Thus, the really sticky issue is how well the personal translates into the universal.

    When you pour your own experiences with your child into a scene about your character and her child, you might be creating art that will resonate with almost all human beings–or you might be writing something so specific to yourself that no one else can relate to it.

    So how do you tell the difference? I don’t know, but figuring out how to communicate what’s in your head and heart to other people is what learning to write well is all about.

    PS – You always come up with such great, thought-provoking topics! :-)

    • Stace
      · July 15th, 2010 at 1:14 pm · Link

      Well, that’s very true; to be publishable the work needs a certain level of skill. But that’s craft, and that’s a different topic. :)

      But “How the personal translates into the universal” is an excellent way to put it, and it is a really big question. And really, there’s no way of knowing how your work translates until it’s out there in the world; all you can do is hope it will resonate with someone else. So I think it’s something no one can really answer; we try to make the personal universal by reaching into our deepest experiences and our truest observations of human nature, and expressing them. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. *shrug*

      Thanks, I try! I figure, the fun posts are a lot of fun, but sometimes it’s nice to be serious and deep, too. :)

  5. BernardL
    · July 14th, 2010 at 4:09 pm · Link

    The query letter for your ‘Downside’ series first book ‘Unholy Ghosts’ must have been incredibly hard to write in order to convey the complexity of it. I’m glad your agent looked deeper and got hooked. I almost didn’t and nearly missed a great read.

    • Stace
      · July 15th, 2010 at 1:20 pm · Link

      Oh, thanks, Bernard! It was difficult, lol, but all queries are a bit; there’s kind of a trick to them, I think.

      This was my query:

      Sometimes addictions are more trouble than they’re worth…

      Owing money to drug lords is never a good idea, especially not if you’re Cesaria “Chess” Putnam, possibly the only woman in the punk-rock ghetto known as Downside who really has something to lose: her job as a Debunker for the omnipotent Church of Truth.

      Chess’ dealer offers her a choice. She can catch the mastermind behind the fake haunting of an abandoned airport so he can smuggle drugs into it, or spend weeks in the hospital after his enforcer breaks her habit for her—along with most of her bones. Chess picks the airport, but when a rotting corpse turns up with a soul still trapped inside and it looks as if the person responsible is one of her co-workers, she realizes the airport’s ghosts are real and this case is far more dangerous than a beating. Hey, who said downer-addicted loners made good choices?

      My dark urban fantasy UNHOLY GHOSTS is complete at 83,000 words. It is a stand-alone novel, but is planned as the first in a series.

      My first urban fantasy, Personal Demons, will be an April 2008 release from Juno Books, and I have just been offered a contract for the sequel (but have not yet signed). As December Quinn I’ve sold six erotic romances to Ellora’s Cave. I am an American currently living in England and dreaming of driving on the right side of the road again.

      Per your guidelines, I’ve pasted the first five pages below. I’d be happy to send the complete manuscript for your review. Thank you for your time, and I look forward to hearing from you.



      • BernardL
        · July 16th, 2010 at 7:17 am · Link

        “Sometimes addictions are more trouble than they’re worth…”

        That was a great starting line. Thanks for posting the query. It is definitely a hard to resist hook. The fear/friend relationship between enforcer ‘Terrible’ and ‘Chess’ came out in the reviews which added the dimension that pulled me on board.

  6. Shiloh Walker
    · July 14th, 2010 at 6:16 pm · Link

    Isn’t creating something with the intent to elicit an emotional response in someone else, art? Isn’t that the purpose of art?

    Well, I write to shut up the voices in my head… :roll:

    But yes, I want my books to connect with the reader in some way. Which, for me, means they have to connect, first, with me.

    If they don’t do that, then I’m not doing my job very well.

    • Stace
      · July 15th, 2010 at 1:23 pm · Link

      Exactly. :)

  7. Ryan Lynch
    · July 15th, 2010 at 12:49 pm · Link

    Hey, it’s the sad truth – but sometimes, censorship and self-editing is a necessity. Sometimes, it should be tossed out the door. What works for the story should be first and foremost.

    Just remember, there’s good art AND bad art… Don’t get caught on the wrong side!


    PS, congrats on getting linked over on io9!

    • Stace
      · July 15th, 2010 at 1:30 pm · Link

      Thanks Ryan!

      That’s very true. It’s important not to place ourselves before the story; writing is about the writing, not about us, no matter how much of ourselves we put into it. (Obviously things like memoirs are different, but we’re not talking about memoirs.) Everything has to serve the story; this is why editors are so great, because they help us see where we haven’t best done that.

  8. Rayne E. Dazes
    · July 15th, 2010 at 12:54 pm · Link

    As someone working towards the goal of becoming published, I really appreciated this post. It gave me a lot to think about in regards to my own writings and what I may and may not be willing to compromise with in the end. :smile:
    I want people to be able to identify with what I write, but I don’t want it to be the same thing they have read a hundred different times before. At the same time, I don’t want them to be entirely put off by what I write (( Cause gods know what is in my head is entirely too messed up to get published)) so I compromise and rework what I WANT to say into something that I think would be more easily digested. ^_^ Who knows though, after this maybe I’ll give just writing what is in my head down for a bit… see what that brings forth.

    ^_^ Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

    • Stace
      · July 15th, 2010 at 1:33 pm · Link

      Thanks Rayne!

      I just think there’s so much advice out there on writing as a craft–and I give a lot of it too, if you click the “For Writers” category and do some hunting around since I haven’t updated all my tags here yet–but very little of that advice is about the emotional/artistic aspects of writing. And this post really isn’t advice, of course, it’s just something I’m thinking about.

      There’s a difference between compromising yourself, and working out a compromise in order to sell. Just keep that in mind.


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