Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Write What the F$@# You Want

John McFetridge

There’s a discussion going on over at Crimespace about sex. How much is too much for mystery novels? Sunny Frazier, who started the discussion, said she wrote a book set in an S&M club but there was no sex in the book and asked, “Was it a cop-out? Or, did I know my audience and exactly what they could handle?”

I think she knew her audience and probably did the right thing for her book.

But it’s a decision we all have to make all the time: do I want to give my audience exactly what they can already handle, or do I want to push them a little?

Do I want to push myself a little?

Usually I go along with the idea that you write for yourself, you write the book you want to read and don’t worry about marketing or sales or any of that. It’s art. Be true to your art.

Then my last book received one criticism more often than any other – too many characters, too many sub-plots, not enough focus on the main action.

Oh, it received some good reviews, too, some people like it just the way it is.

But now that I’ve had a few books published I’m starting to think again about that whole, be true to your art stuff. What’s wrong with considering what the reviews have to say? Especially when so many are saying the same thing.

Maybe there are too many characters. Not many people read a book in a single sitting, or even two or three sittings. I know I don’t, I read a book fifteen minutes at a time over a week or two.

It is hard to keep track of a lot of characters and sub-plots.

So, in the book I’m working on now I went back and took out a bunch of characters and a couple of sub-plots.

And there’s the eternal question – how much do we compromise for sales? We all make the joke that it depends on how many sales we’re talking about, “For a million bucks, I’d...”

Everybody has to find their own balance between art and sales but I think maybe it’s best to start as close to art as possible.

What do you think?


Declan Burke said...

Fuck art, let's dance ...

The thing about the compromise between art and sales (and I speak as a writer with no art nor sales to speak of, and I'm running for the moment with the presumption that art and sales are mutually exclusive, which I don't believe for a second) is that the compromise is worth it for that million bucks, on one level at least; but very few writers are going to hit that million bucks level, no matter what they do, and if you don't, all you're left with is the compromise - books you didn't want to write that no one wants to read.

Cheers, Dec

Dana King said...

It's probably easier (if more painful) to take things out of the book you want to write than it is to add good stuff after the fact, so there's that.

For a million bucks (deposited in my account first, please) I'd write a piece of shit and hope it sold, then maybe it could subsidize the stuff I really want to write. Who knows, people might be willing to bite the bullet and read a book with a lot of characters and sub-plots if a reputation as a "best selling author" had been established.

BTW, is this "too many characters and plots" thing a recent phenomenon? Have any of the people who say this ever read James Michener or Alex Hailey? Not that Michener and hailey have been confused with Hemingway and Steinbeck as writers, but they sold assloads of books.

Eric Beetner said...

I think the yardstick is not number of sales but connection with readers. If the goal is to connect with a small but devoted legion of fans maybe sticking to your guns is the way to go. But in the end the goal is to be read, isn't it? Adjusting things based on feedback is not a bad thing. Selling out and attempting to write for the masses IS a bad thing and it will also never work. Dan Brown just wrote books. I'm sure he had no idea what they would become. His audience found him, he didn't go fishing for them any more than the rest of us do.
So John, adjust to the audience as long as you still stay you. And only you can be the judge of that. If your heart's not in it, the book won't be good. But if we can all take constructive criticism and make it work in our own style then the end result will usually be better.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

So far, I have nothing on the shelves, so I tend to write what entertains me. Of course, I'm hoping that the characters and the story connect with an audience. I think it is often a crap shoot as to what will connect and what will miss the mark. Because it is a crap shoot I think the best we can do is entertain ourselves - and edit with the hopes that whatever we trim and change will help the reader better understand the story.

And yep...I'm terrified of those reviews you are talking about. I hope I use your example and find the constructive use for them. (Otherwise I might just drink...a lot!)

Sunny Frazier said...

When I saw the title of your post on Google Alerts, I cringed. But, you are the voice of reason. I wanted to write about S&M making the practitioners the GOOD guys for a change. I wrote about a meth dealer you could sympathize with in my first book. So, do I feel I compromised my vision? Not in the least. I just wrote in a way to get it to the widest readership.

Having said that, I'm dying to write an obnoxious, possibly nasty book. But, I'll also know what publisher to pitch it to!

Karyne said...

I think you are dead on with saying sometimes you have to balance between the two. I don't want to sell out but neither do I want to tap out before I've even gotten my career going. Knowing when and where to push or pull back is an art all itself. Consider it a sub-plot to the plot of writing.

WS Gager said...

If you compromise too much, you lose the message. My main character, Mitch Malone in A Case of Infatuation,spends the whole book wanting sex with a women, hence the infatuation. The sexual innuendo isn't heavy, just there. Is that commercial? Probably not. Is it funny? Yes a lot of the time. I hopefully it's very entertaining. The second book I had edited out all the sexual innuendo because it didn't work. It will be interesting to see how it is received when it comes out this summer.


Holli Castillo said...

My book has sex in it. It has more sexual innuendo and sexual characters than actual penetration,but yes, it does have a hot sex scene or two, completely integral to the plot.

I had several members from a writer's group think it was sleazy. I also had little old white haired grandmas love it and ask when the next one was coming out.

You can't compromise what you think needs to be in the book based upon the opinion of people who may not like your book anyway. Big time cozy readers ain't gonna like Gumbo Justice, that's just a fact.

If you don't like violence, gang bangers, death, child victims, sex, or a combination thereof, mine is not the book for you. But I could hardly write a believable mystery about New Orleans' murders without some of these factors.

You can't please everyone all the time, and most times it's not worth trying. My mother and sister didn't like my novel, but that didn't stop me.

So my book isn't on the best seller's list. I'm with an independent publisher, Oak Tree Press, so the likelihood of being on the bestseller's list was remote at best. I don't think removing the things some people don't like would have put me at number one.

If people review your book and complain about such things as spelling, grammar, typos, and the like, maybe you have a problem. If people complain you didn't do enough of something, (other than proofread), or did too much of something, too many characters or plots, etc., that's their opinion, and they're entitled to it. But it shouldn't negate all the good reviews and doesn't change the opinions of all those people who liked it the way it was. And they're the ones likely to buy your next book.