This past week I had a conversation with a fellow writer dealing with two classes of advice he receives. I don't have a name yet for the second class of advice, but the first class earned a label immediately: Sell It Or Shelve It.
The folks of the SIOSI mentality tend to speak like they just fell out, fully formed, from between the pages of a book named Write That Damn Novel In 30 Days Or Go Get A Day Job, Loser!1 Their advice is entirely workmanlike and practical, to a fault: explain everything upfront so you never commit the mortal authorial sin of confusing the reader; don't make the main characters unlikable; every scene should have "action" (which, as my friend pointed out, is apparently a code word for violence or graphic sex).
The advice from the second group is still critical, but focused more on things like deepening character and bringing the underlying conceits in the story more completely to life by providing vivid description and lively character interaction. I wasn't surprised to learn he valued this feedback highly, but was on the fence about whether or not the first group should be shoved into Mick Jagger's jockstrap and kicked offstage.
Here was my answer:
The mind-set created by writer's workshops and how-to books sees the primary function of writing a book is to make it marketable. These folks are not wrong per se; it's just that much of the advice they have to offer is aimed at, and meant for, a class of writer that's just finding their legs.
What I also find is these folks are slightly missing the point, in that a) there is a market for most any well-written book — even if there isn't a gigantic one — and that b) not every book needs to be written like a best-seller to hit its mark. It simply needs to fulfill its intentions as completely and resonantely as it can.
That said, there's a balancing act to be performed. To say "I don't need a best-seller sized audience" is not the same thing as "Screw all that fascist grammar and spelling crap!" or "The hell with a story, they've all been told already!" So, again, it's not that the SIOSI guys are wholly wrong — I just suspect they don't see that what they offer is a starting point and not an endpoint. To wit: Protagonists don't have to be likable, they have to be interesting, but most fledgling writers don't know how to make a character interesting apart from making them likable. Not every scene needs action, but every scene should have a purpose, one that advances some part of the story towards the things it feels drawn to. And so on.
My advice, then, was that the folks in first group can be safely told to go take their respective hikes, but only because the writer in question is already aiming higher and shooting farther. I don't think there's any merit in saying that all professionally geared writing advice is uniformly cynical, let alone worthless, but I do believe it has a limited shelf life for any author. Because any author worth his salt or any of the other spices on the rack should have an interest in her work as a doorway to the world itself, and not just other books, however well-written.
John Cage, quoting Sri Ramakrishna, comes back to mind: music (here, substitute "writing") is a means of rapid transportation to life everlasting. And, as Cage appended, to life, period.
1 There is no such book as far as I know. Yet.
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