Monday, 16 August 2010

ART OR COMMERCE - Nicola Morgan

I have been having interesting conversations recently on the subject of writing more commercially. By which I mean writing with an intention to sell more books. There's been a revealing discussion in the comments of a blog post I wrote on my own blog, titled, SELLING OUT? In the post, I'd used the phrase, "Selling out? I call it selling."

Seems to me that we've got ourselves caught in a quite unnecessary, contradictory and damaging mindset. It goes like this: a writer's success is most often measured in volume of sales. (In the eyes of publishers and the public, if not by us.) Yet, at the same time, many people sneer at the idea of writing "more commercially" in order to attract more readers - ie more sales.We know that harder books will be read by fewer people, but we need to be read by more people in order to survive as writers. Yet we think that "harder" books are somehow "better".

Writers and other artists have always had to have an eye to what would sell. We don't produce art in a vacuum - or, at least, I would rather not. I write so people will read me. It would be pointless (for me) if no one did, and pretty pointless if only a very few did. Call me a mercenary - please - but what is wrong with us wanting more people to read our work? In my ideal world, lots of readers would choose to spend their time and money reading whatever I wrote; but it's not an ideal world so I have to think carefully about who my readers are, what they might enjoy enough to pay for, and how many readers I would like to have.

This week I spoke at an event in Glasgow for writers - Weegie Wednesday - and I talked about how all authors must decide what we want from our writing, whether we are in it for art or in it to making a living, and the possible and varied compromises we might need to make in either case. I gave a strident "take control of your writing lives" message. I said that neither writing for art's sake nor writing to try to make a living were positions to be ashamed of, but that we had to be clear about which we wanted and how we can achieve it - even if we end up doing a bit of both. (Which is my ideal.) From conversations afterwards it was really obvious that the published writers are being much more realistic, down-to-earth and commercial-minded than the unpublished. There's a lesson there...

What does this mean for me at the moment? Well, on my agent's advice, but also believing myself that it's the right thing to do if we want to offer it as a highly commercial, saleable venture, I am taking a machete to something I wrote about 18 months ago. I'm stripping out all the bits I thought I liked, all the bits that I thought made it special. Anything that doesn't take the story forward, fast and furiously, goes. Whole chapters are zapped. Lyrical pauses go. Back-story disappears. The philosophy and reasoning are subsumed. The gaps are injected with action and pace.

And you know what? Without all those "good" bits, it's better. I like it! I like it almost as much as I did before but - and this is more important for me than it is for the unpublished writers I spoke to this week - I think readers will like it better. And maybe that's the difference between arty and commercial: with arty, the artist likes it more; with commercial, the reader likes it more.

Well, I'm in this to write for readers and I am not ashamed if perhaps I can now write for a few more of them. If that's one measure of success, bring it on.

As an aside, I want to ask the writers amongst you something: have you noticed a recent tendency amongst publishers to want stories to be faster-moving, with greater "page-turnability"? Do you think they're right or are they over-reacting to the shorter attention spans which we keep being told people have? And have you felt the need or desire to alter your writing to accommodate it? If you thought that writing in a different way would gain you more sales, would you do it?

Readers, what do you think about this suggestion? Even if you still love to linger over a book, do you accept that many (more?) people want something more page-turning?

I'd love to know your thoughts!

24 comments:

catdownunder said...

I have said this elsewhere - and to you too - but I think it is worth repeating...you also need to challenge the reader. If you give them just what they expect then you really do not give them anything at all.

Michael Malone said...

I'm writing to be sold (please make it soon) and trying to hit the middle ground as i do so. i write in the crime genre and there seems to be a split with readers here as well. Some want plot, plot, plot and others want character in the mix as well. My impression is that (crime)writers in the US tend towards the latter more than we do in the UK. Ultimately I'm writing the kind of book I'd want to spend my money on.

Katherine Langrish said...

This is a really interesting post, Nicola, and one we all have to think about. As a starter, probably none of us are such good writers that our work can't benefit from some cutting, even after we think we've cut everything we possibly can. I thought I'd revised and cut 'Troll Fell' sufficiently when it first came out six years ago. Recently, I had to abridge it for an omnibus edition of all three of the Troll series, to come out next spring. I cut 20,000 words from Troll Fell - about a third. And I think it's improved it no end. It's pacier and punchier, and there's still plenty of all the magic/description etc - but the flab has gone.

Keren David said...

I've just read your previous post and all the comments with great interest. I think one thing's gone missing - genre. When the publishing industry's in the grips of one particular genre - let's say Paranormal Romance for teens - it lengthens the odds against writers who are, say, writing 'gritty realism' for teens. But it gives a platform to people who've had an idea for a paranormal romance knocking around for a while.
Literary fiction can be pared-down or it can be lyrical. So can commercial fiction. But publishers will only put money in when they think they'll get money back, and at the moment there's far less money sloshing around the system than there used to be.
Publishing is a businss. Writing can be an art, a hobby or a profession - it really depends on one's circumstances and preferences.

Gillian Philip said...

I'm starting to realise that pages just HAVE to be turnable for me to go on with a book nowadays. There's just so much stuff I want/need/ought to read, I can't make time for a book that doesn't 'want' to be read. I'm having the same experience as you Nicola - stripping down and reordering a book I wrote a while ago, and being very ruthless with passages I once adored (too much). It's punchier now but it's also better - they're not mutually exclusive, I don't think. I'm doing this deliberately to make the book more saleable, but it's an improvement. Great post and very thought-provoking.

adele said...

Excellent post! And yes, tons to discuss. I think that page turnability is the ONE thing that's not definable but which you can't do without. The best book in the world is no use at all if its pages remain unturned. And yes, pace and leanness matter but I can remember writing an article for Books for Keeps back in the 80s longing for SLOWNESS and not zap zap zap all the time. It'll be on the BFK website maybe and if I can go over there and find the link, I'll put it up somewhere. There is a lot of nervousness out there among publishers and every book has to do well on its own account. There is no trickle down effect from the big sellers to subsidise the efforts of those who sell fewer copies, which is a shame. I reckon these days, whatever gets you a contract is fine. And cutting is ALWAYS worthwhile to do. Tons of books (Steig Larsson, Stephen King etc) are seriously over-long and could do with ruthless pruning!

Nicky said...

A timely post as I am about to slash and burn my way through my latest offering. I am not a big fan of writerly self indulgence and sometimes 'art' is self indulgence disguised. I don't believe my womblings are more artistic that the results of ruthless trimming in fact, if anything, work from which the fat and fluff has been removed is often better on every measure.

michelle lovric said...

Really interesting, Nicola.

I was talking to an agent (not mine) at a party recently, and asked him what he needed to see in a ms to make him take it on.

He said, 'I want it FAST'. Then he cited as an ideal example of 'fast' a novel which has very little plot action. He explained that he had engaged with its characters in a New York Minute, and that was one acceptable definition of 'fast'.

So it doesn't have to be action and car chases. It can be an instant rapport between the reader and person on the page. This can, I suppose, be created by a brilliant voice.

Voice AS pace? back to the drawing board.

Anna Bowles said...

I've said lots on this before and need to be working. But I'll say here that one thing which makes me doubtful about endorsing commercial dictates for all is the number of books I’ve read that have a Really Exciting scene in the first chapter, and then the rest of the book dangles a bit sadly from the pumped-up beginning. I always interpret this as someone having told the writer that they must make their book fast! and compelling! so that a publisher/shelf-browser will know they want it in the first 10 seconds. Not all books should be stuffed into this one format, I feel, but at the moment not doing it is tantamount to sticking a note saying ‘I don’t know how publishing works’ to your MS.

Anyone else notice this?

madwippitt said...

Maybe one day there'll be the book equivalent of the Director's Cut in films ... :-)

What a shame someone evidently didn't have the nerve to tell JKR to do a bit of whittling down ...

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

A bit of a double-edged sword, Nicola. The commercial angle makes sense but it's a pity publishers don't back both kinds of writing. If all we ever produce is fast-paced quick reads how is a child with a smidgen of imagination ever to survive? Aren't we writers because we were allowed a childhood of imaginative dreaming and were given books that needed delving into and mulling over? Michelle's point was an interesting one... where 'voice' could be the element that grasps the reader quickly and not pace... but voice is subtle and beguiling and not necessarily in your face. Yes, we need to earn money but don't let's give up on subtle layered stories just because of commercial pressure.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

...forgot to say I agree with 'catdownunder' readers need to be challenged. If writers are to survive in the long run, don't we want discerning readers?

adele said...

My article on PACE in children's books is in the July 1995 issue of the magazine. If you go to the wonderful BFK website and find that issue by clicking on BACK ISSUES then you can find the article very easily. I can only make the link live on an email and not in a comments box, being a bear of very little technological brain but I'm about to post the link on Balclava for readers who read that! Anyone else, just put Books for Keeps into Google and Bob's your uncle!

frances thomas said...

I'm sure Nicola is right commercially. But I was just remembering those wonderful slow Mantelmass stories of the 70s. What chance would they have today?

Leslie Wilson said...

I like writing to be economical, and dislike huge, self-indulgent descriptions. I actually think writing can be brilliant without being hugely lengthy. But - there is a difference between writing things that have good narrative pace and only writing for the big sales. Because aren't the people who want a bit more of a challenge 'a market'?
If the only books I had to read were Stieg Larsen, Dan Browne, Lesley Pearce and all - well, I'd be pretty fed up, because I don't enjoy any of them. I know I'm not the only one.
I found Hilary Mantel's 'Wolf Hall' a page-turner - and I know a lot of other people did.
People's short attention spans are not something to be celebrated, to my mind. For example, doesn't that interfere with their ability to deal with serious problems like climate change? Or just their ability to do their job? I wouldn't be happy if the surgeon who performed a six-hour operation on me four years ago today had said: 'Oh, you have to accept people have a short attention spans nowadays, I can't concentrate on getting the whole of your spinal tumour out, it'd take too long. I'll knock off after an hour.'

Nicky said...

I think if we want people to learn to love reading we have to start where our readers are, wherever that is. I find some of the books I loved as a child impossibly slow now because back in the day there was very little competing for my attention.
I am an impatient reader, easily bored when the writer goes off on one and feels obliged to tell me how much research they have done and how many polysyllabic words they know. I think there is a lot to be said for tight, well crafted writing and it doesn't have be dumb. I think it is our job to write for the world as it is not as we would have it be for only then, when we have readers, do we stand any chance of changing things.

Leslie Wilson said...

Anyway, who are these people who set out to write a boring novel? One where people DON'T want to turn the pages?

Nicola Morgan said...

Thanks for all your comments, everyone - sorry i didn't come and join in: I was away from my desk all day. Lots of interesting points. I suppose what i'm really trying to say is not whether it's right and good that publishers want more page-turnability now, but pointing out that my experience is that they do. I do a lot of speaking to aspiring writers, and they need to know the reality.

I started reading Candia McWilliam's recent memoir on blindness (something like "What to look for in the winter: a memoir in blindness") and her prose is so extraordinary that it slows you down - now, I had thought, like Gillian that I too now crave things that move quickly, but I've actually loved being pulled back.

Cat (and others) - re needing not just to pander to the reader, I definitely don't mean this. I do want to challenge readers, too, and anyone who's read anything I've written knows that dumbed-down or easy are not apt descriptions, but I also do, above all else, want my readers to enjoy what I write. I do not drag them there for some kind of improving process - though I love if their minds are opened or they think new. But it is a reader's choice to reader any book by any of us, and I want them to read mine.

With good writers being dropped by publishers and with publishers needing more sales to achieve the same income (because of reduced prices and therefore revenue on each book sold), any writer who is not thinking about readers, and in terms of quantity, very closely (which does not mean pandering to them, as I say), is taking a big risk, if he/she wishes to remain published.

Leslie - of course, I agree, but we're not always the best or most objective judges of our books, are we? I have a tendency to be self-indulgent, and I have to rein that in constantly. It's all relative, too, isn't it, and all readers/genres require something different. I think it's our job to understand what we're doing and why, but never to forget the resader, the person who will invest time and money in our book.

Great discussion, everyone!

Katherine Roberts said...

This is such an interesting post, Nicola... I hope it's not closed for comments!

You asked: If you thought that writing in a different way would gain you more sales, would you do it? YES OF COURSE. I don't think it's lack of desire for commercial success that makes a writer write in an "arty" way... more lack of experience with the market. What writer doesn't desire sales of their work?

I do agree with Adele and Diane about missing the "slowness" in many recent books - maybe not slowness as such, but richness? I've just read two pacy YA books (both published recently) alongside a wonderful "slower" novel first published 10 years ago, which was just so beautiful I had to turn back to the beginning when I had finished it to read it all over again ("I Rode a Horse of Milk White Jade" by Diane Lee Wilson, which I'll be reviewing on my blog at the end of the month). I don't quite know what this elusive quality is, but there are very few books I feel a need to read a second time, and fewer still I can enjoy over again even when I know the plot.

The question is would I have appreciated the slower book so much when I was a child? I like to think so, but... maybe not! As children's writers we need to remember we are NOT the target readership.

Leila said...

When I was a child, I read lots of different books, of many different genres and paces. I loved Willard Price's books and the Tintin series exactly as much as I loved A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley. The only book I recall putting down as being too slow paced was Little Grey Men by BB :). I remember being really annoyed about it because it looked like it would be a really good book, if it weren't so *slow*.
Well, I looked at A Traveller in Time again a few months ago, and I was astonished at how long-winded, slow-paced, and downright dull I found it. Tastes have certainly changed.
Would I write differently if I thought it would get me more sales? I think so, yes. Isn;t that exactly what one does when one tries to get published in the first place? You write a book, submit it, get it back with a note saying 'Quite good but...'. If you get several notes with the same 'but' in them, you pay attention to that. You go to critique groups, you do an MA. You listen to what readers think. And you change the way you write, until you write what people want to read. That's just called becoming a better writer.
The trouble is that you can change how you write all you want, if Waterstone's or whoever don't stock you, you won't get the sales.There are factors out of our control and we just have to write the best book we can, and hope for the best.

Nicola Morgan said...

Katherine and Leila - in short, I agree with all you say!

A couple of years ago I re-read The Black Tulip by Alexandre Dumas, which I had adored as a teenager. Reader, I nearly fell asleep. It felt SOOO slow. I think we have to recognise that a) we change and b) it's hard to see into someone's mind. We just have to do our best. But it is a fact that most publishers think that most readers want something faster and our choice is whether to deliver it (beautifully) or not be published / sell. :( But, remember, I did say iI was entirely happy with my pared back "commercial" version.

Lucy Coats said...

What a particularly interesting and timely post, Nicola, and a fascinating comments thread too. I am much more ruthless about my writing these days--I used to feel it as a stab to the heart if it was suggested I should take a favoured passage out to make it 'tighter and pacier'. I've developed a thicker skin now and a realisation that I will fight the battles I really care about and not sweat the small stuff. Having been an editor myself in the long ago and faraway '80s, I usually have a pretty good idea when my own editor is right, however much my heart is protesting "oh, but I LOVE this bit."

Nicola said...

Hi Nick...only just found this blogging space. I think you are right that writers who don't think about their audiences are not going to make any money. But I think almost as powerful in the mythology of writers as the 'commercial means crap' is the idea that you must 'murder your darlings' - that the bits of your writing that you love most must be, because thy ARE your darlings, self indulgent rubbish that no one else will ever want to read. Of course neither myth is either completely true or completely false, but both contain elements of truth: writing commercially can be crap if all you are focussed on is the pay cheque and 'darlings' may be unreadable rubbish if all you are looking at is how pretty the words are. For me it all boils down to writing with your heart and really wanting to communicate something. Some people have the style, the talent and the luck to be able to communicate to lots of people with their writing, and others, equally talented but with a different heart- style will only ever be writing for a small number of kids. I just hope we can keep a children's publishing industry where both sorts get books published.

Nicola said...

Hi Nick...only just found this blogging space. I think you are right that writers who don't think about their audiences are not going to make any money. But I think almost as powerful in the mythology of writers as the 'commercial means crap' is the idea that you must 'murder your darlings' - that the bits of your writing that you love most must be, because thy ARE your darlings, self indulgent rubbish that no one else will ever want to read. Of course neither myth is either completely true or completely false, but both contain elements of truth: writing commercially can be crap if all you are focussed on is the pay cheque and 'darlings' may be unreadable rubbish if all you are looking at is how pretty the words are. For me it all boils down to writing with your heart and really wanting to communicate something. Some people have the style, the talent and the luck to be able to communicate to lots of people with their writing, and others, equally talented but with a different heart- style will only ever be writing for a small number of kids. I just hope we can keep a children's publishing industry where both sorts get books published.