Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Artist and the Salesman

I’m reading a book on writing books penned by an agent. It’s not one of the big agents (see below) and it’s not the first like it I’ve read. This time however, I’m seeing it with new eyes. I’m really noticing the disconnect and the difference between the artist and salesman. The book, like others like it, states unequivocally the pocket logic of not to write to the market but then, as is also the way of these books. goes on to spend the next thee hundred pages telling you exactly how to do just that.

Using examples from once in a lifetime efforts, fads and flash-in-the-pans, from lucky authors who caught lightning in a bottle are gems like these:

Just come up with a great idea and write that.

Tense doesn’t matter but don’t use present.

Always have a romance, but let the story dictate.

Your story should be as long as it needs to be, but don’t go over 80,000 words.

Your story must be High Concept (explainable in a single sentence) or don’t bother submitting it. 

I feel for the agent who advises authors. They want to celebrate the art, but they’re not on that side; they’re on the business side. They need to push easily digestible junk food pulp and hope something in their catalog will nourish their readers enough to keep them coming back.

But what I really hate about these kinds of how-to advice columns is how the agent’s prejudices and experiences are melted down to a kind of formula. I hate that. I don’t believe in it. It’s a personal grudge, one that grew out of books on writing by agents and also from the infamous screenwriting bible SAVE THE CAT.

Remember 1984, George Orwells’ formulaic market chasing junk food political thriller? If I remember it right, there was a division in the Ministry of Truth, that actually produced books on an assembly line according to a pattern. Smut and violence for the masses. Artless consumer goods.

The idea that art—my art-—can be summed up into a formula is a horror.

It’s not that formulas don’t work, it’s that people grow so used to them that they see anything outside it as wrong. I see new editors really struggle with this. A cookie-cutter mentality of reproduction. It’s a prejudice, and I use that word deliberately, with all the social emphasis I can because these are the guidelines agents and editors use to judge the merit of a book without actually reading it. They close their minds to the new. They give lip service to originality, but that’s not what they’re looking for. They cherish the artist, but sign the hack. It’s safer to let only the High Concept, 70,000 word Young Adult Romantic Time Traveling adventure through than to investigate a book whose author couldn’t sum it up in a soundbite. I get it, but it’s ugly.

Worse, new writers who get their hands on an agent-written book on writing are apt to write while looking over their shoulder. Instead of investigating their question, following the path of their muse, they’ll pound square pegs into round holes because an expert told them to do it that way.

Next week I’m going to Las Vegas. I’m attending the Las Vegas Writer's Conference put on by the Henderson Writing Group. It looks absolutely amazing. I’m really stoked. I get to talk facets and theme to the desert tribe. I get to wax poetic on pain and the transcendental experience expression and language. Then I’m spending a day with Donald Maass. If you don’t know who that is, you’ve haven’t started querying agents yet. If I had to name the biggest, most influential agents on the planet, I’d say Donald Maass and then shut up. He’s written a half dozen books on writing. I haven’t read his (yet) but they’re best sellers and I have some on my shelf and will doubtlessly pick up the ones I don’t have while I’m down there. He’s putting on a full day seminar and I’ll be there taking advantage of the rare opportunity to breath to same air as he. I’m sure I’ll get lots of golden nuggets about the industry, but I’m not sure I’ll learn much about the art. I’m steeling myself for it. I know I’ll question everything I’ve written, everything I am writing, everything I want to write. I have little doubt I’ll be hit by a brick of inadequacy during his workshop and question my entire career because it has not been as commercial is might otherwise be.

A one saving grace that agents can’t conceal in their commercial recipe is that the books they point to as great, innovative and industry-changing all broke previously established rules and expectations. Present tense was bad, until THE HUNGER GAMES. You’ve got to have a strong romantic element, until HARRY POTTER. Literary fiction is dead until Cormac McCarthy. You must have sympathetic characters until GIRL ON THE TRAIN.

The other thing about popular books, the blockbusters, the best-sellers to remember is that they also got god-damned lucky. They were the right thing at the right time with the right people backing it. Knowing this, and remembering it, are what keeps me going because I can’t write as the agents tell me.

I’m justifying, I know. But I’ve done that my whole life. I’m not a copy. I’m an individual. I rebel against convention, hipster that I am. Some of your rules I like (bathing, commas) others I don’t (sugar sodas, seven point plots). I think of myself as an artist before a salesman and find truth in my writing because of it, though possibly not the sales I might have had otherwise.

David Morrell once told me, it’s better to an authentic you than a counterfeit other. Taking advice from the commercial side of publishing suggests, against all their lip service, that the counterfeit is what you need to be.

Bullshit. I’ll stick with Dave.

1 comment:

  1. I loved Donald Maass' "Writing the breakout novel workbook." I'm not sure my writing was mature enough for its lessons at the time of my first novel, but it was entertaining and useful and I still refer back to it.