Academics and the writing world

When I was studying in university, there were a number of things that were referred to as having an effect on what authors wrote. In no particular order, those things tended to be the following, or variations thereof:

  • the writing standards of that time/place
  • personal experience
  • ideology

This is all well and good – writing standards changed a lot over time (writing verse used to be all the rage before novels took off not too many centuries ago), and who you are, what you’ve been through and what you believe in definitely influence what you write. But all this being said, the people who analyze books often don’t have a great grasp on what the actual process of writing is like.

It’s not their fault. I don’t know many professors who are also great writers – or who are writers at all.

Here are some extra things that affect writing, from my own experience:

  • the medium of publication
  • the publisher
  • the speed at which the story is created

Writing experience is on the cusp between the two: sometimes teachers will talk about a certain text being created by a “mature” writer – while at other times they seem to be oblivious to the fact that writers can and often do improve from one story to the next.

Experience means moving away from naivety and cliches and starting to understand greater depths. Experience means learning enough tricks to go to the depths of the matter. Experience means learning how to describe something so that the audience isn’t bored, but you don’t skip over the necessaries – it’s learning when to create something simple and when to create complexity. If you learn, you get better. At one point, the curve is so slight it looks almost like a horizontal line, but it still took effort to get there.

One thing you won’t hear teachers say too often is: “Dickens’ first published short story, “A Dinner at Poplar Walk”, is pretty lame, all things considered. But give the guy a break, he was new at this and he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life.” It’s as if writers aren’t really allowed to be young, stupid and lame in hindsight. (I really like Dickens; and you can feel his evolution as a writer if you take his novels chronologically. That’s experience. Also, I have to wonder if he had any stories he submitted to magazines before that, which got rejected)

Academics like solid facts, of which experience might or might not be one. The life of an author?… Well, to a certain point you can say things like “William Burroughs took drugs, and he wrote about the subject, which makes sense”.

The variations between how a book might have worked out and how the book did work out are far, far from solid facts. How would Dickens’ Bleak House have looked had he tried to write it as a first novel? I don’t know. How would Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird have looked had she written 20 books before it? I have no idea. (She was expecting it to flop, by the way)

It’s even harder to figure out how the medium, publisher and writing speed affect publication, but I’ll make an attempt to discuss the topic, because writing is less like creating a solid block and more like creating a fluid mass.

The publisher has a huge effect on the published book. Obviously, most writers want to get published and read – there’s little sense in spending all your free time on a great work only to shove it in your drawer/burn it and never talk about it again (although there might have been people who did that in the past; we’ll never know). Now, in order to get published, a writer traditionally had to go to a publisher. The publisher yay-ed or nay-ed the work.

Publishers are there primarily as a business that wants to stay in business. How? By doing what they know and adapting to what the public wants. Romance publishers are good at finding romance books and they’ll stick to the formula that their audience wants. Mainstream publishers are good at selecting their mainstream books and they’ll stir away from genre. And so forth.

I’ve heard it said that if you want to see a publisher running, you say “Hey, I have this collection of short stories I want to publish…” Apparently, at the time this was said (which might even be now…), short stories weren’t as popular as, say, novels. So they were harder to get out there.

Imagine how hard it would be to publish an epic poem in today’s day and age. Yup, it sounds like self-publishing.

Now, this applies to smaller things as well: you want to write a fluffy romance where everything ends well? You have a lot of publishers to choose from. You want a sci fi romance? Well, that’s more complicated… It ends badly? Uh oh, the options are starting to vanish! And it contains obscure scientific references? Erm, yes, let me imagine the rejection letter from pretty much any romance publisher out there: “Sorry, we’re looking for something else at this time”.

So while some writers will say “Okay, I’ll do my thing and see who takes it”, other writers will say “Okay, they take things that go like this, I’ll make my story more like it”. And then the publisher might suggest edits, which might be big, or might be small… (I remember that JK Rowling wanted to have a crazy dog lover in book 4 of Harry Potter, but she was persuaded not to)

The medium of publication is something that is going to affect the final product even more. If you write a serial novel for a paper magazine, the way they did in the Victorian era, you’ll be forced to try to keep things exciting enough to get people to keep reading you – and simple enough for them to jump on board mid-story, in case they’ve never read the magazine before.

Today, writing a serial story means trying even harder to keep your audience, which can always click away, but you don’t need to worry that they might not have access to the first parts of the story.

For serial stories, you can’t go back midway and change things, because you’ve already published.

A normal book that shows up in bookstores is an entirely different thing: you can edit anything at any time before you publish, but you might not have people guessing about the strange cliffhanger you’ve left at the end of chapter 4, which allows 10 interpretations. Instead, they can move on to chapter 5 immediately.

Self-published ebooks? They can be of any size. Paperback novel? Between certain page numbers, please! (for ease of reading) It made sense for Terry Pratchett to write a number of extra words to get a certain word just right on the page for a paperback Discworld novel, but on Kindle the effect was ruined. And ebooks can contain links and easy annotations.

And sometimes, writing online is composed of writing-audience response-writing-audience response.

Which leads me to the last point: writing speed. Plus focus, actually. If you write a novel in a month, it won’t be identical to the novel you would write on the same premise if you had two months to write it in. Spending some time to think on things is essential for producing quality, even if spending a lot of time thinking can be counter-productive (because of a tendency to complicate, or simply because you aren’t getting anywhere new).

There’s a certain classic novel in Romanian literature that all students must read. It’s short, which makes it seem easy, but. It’s a mystery written in two weeks. It’s visibly rushed (if you know what to look for – such as never mentioning the main character’s daughter past the introduction, or a disposition towards telling, not showing). It probably could have benefited from extra editing, yet every teacher I’ve ever had seemed to gloss over the subject, except when they were throwing this tidbit around as a sort of “Did you know?”

I wonder if we’re ever going to hear lectures along the lines of “Well, over here Alexandre Dumas became ill and couldn’t focus for the chapter he was supposed to be writing then, which needed to be published soon, so he wrote in this little bit of the Count of Monte Cristo that doesn’t fit as well as it ought to, but he saved it later by doing so-and-so”. Probably not. Great writers never catch the flu. (also, they probably don’t know if anything happened to Dumas while he was writing the serialized version of his stories; I have no idea if there are problems in the Count of Monte Cristo, seeing as I’ve read it as a kid and don’t remember any clear details by now)

Somehow, despite all the million criticism trends that came and went, some caring about the author’s personal life, some not caring, some analyzing the text very carefully sentence by sentence, some only caring about the bigger picture and ideas – well, somehow none seemed to care about the very immediate circumstances of writing. For all intents and purposes, it’s like books are still created in bubbles. And I think that these circumstances can reveal their own fascinating insights.

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