It’s Only Words – A Blast From The Past Post from December 2010
It is one of the er… interesting aspects of a writing career that moments of heartbreak and the most fallow, dark years are inextricably linked to the moments when something clicks.
Perhaps it’s true of life, anyway. Human beings are creatures of habit. If everything is going along fine – or even tolerably – nothing changes. This in terms of society explains why wars and revolutions tend to change the world in scientific and innovation terms as well as in political and social. Because once everything is made “wrong” or “uncomfortable” and a mass of humans are broken out of their routine, then you can reestablish your quotidian life using new information/science.
In 1997/8 I’d come to the conclusion I’d never sell, not at the professional level. This required I rearrange my entire life, which had been geared towards my learning the craft and trying to get published for over a decade and strongly geared that way for at least six years.
I realized early on that I couldn’t actually give up writing. It’s an ingrained habit that long predates any dreams of publishing for pay. I make up stories and I write them down to get them out of my head. I finished my first “novel” (Okay, so it was forty pages) at ten AND wrote it during finals week in fourth grade (which actually determined what kind of secondary school I would attend, so it wasn’t as unimportant as it sounds.)
So, in 98, first I tried to write just for myself, but that didn’t work. When you’re writing for yourself, there’s no reason to make sure you are understood or understandable. There’s no reason to affix the details to paper. What you write ends up sounding like memories of dreams – things that come out of the subconscious and submerge again. After a while it feels pointless.
I needed to write FOR someone, but I had no audience. These days I might have written for online. How that would have turned out is anyone’s guess, and I truly have no clue. Perhaps I’d have attracted no readers, studied, and ended up about where I am. Or perhaps I’d have attracted a couple hundred, just enough to keep writing at the level I was.
As it turned out, though, self-publication at the time was – at best – silly. So I thought I’d keep writing just as a hobby and to get readers, I’d write for fandom. Finding a fandom was something else again. My dad used to introduce me to people with “this is my daughter, she doesn’t like television” – making sure people knew my handicap up front.
I’m not going to be high and mighty here and say I picked the one fandom that was out of copyright on purpose. If Anne McCaffrey hadn’t stomped so hard on all fanfic related to her work, I’d probably have fallen into dragon riders world fanfic. Hard. As it was all the traces of those that I could find were long since shut down.
Other than that, my tastes verge on the fuddy-duddy. I wasn’t going to attempt Heinlein fanfic, (I’m not that crazy) or the rest of the genre. Dumas fanfic is the ONLY fanfic that runs to foursomes. Er… same gender foursomes. And I didn’t want to write erotica, anyway. I wanted to write stories.
So I fell into Austen fanfic at Derbyshire Writers Guild and The Republic of Pemberley. I got myself kicked out of the Republic of Pemberley in short order. No, I didn’t want to write erotica, but I reserve the right to make stupid jokes. Apparently, that wasn’t allowed at RoP.
This left me with DWG. And because I had learned to write for publication – even if I hadn’t been published – I studied the market first. What I found was so surprising that it took almost a year for it to penetrate.
You see, partly because I am foreign born and an ESL speaker, I paid a lot of attention to words, always. I think I’ve shared that my idea of how my work was received at publishers when I first started writing – I thought people sat around laughing at my misuse of idiom and wondering where I was from.
Because of this, I obsessed on words for many, many years. In fact, when I went to the Oregon writers workshop, Dean Smith STILL had to order me to not think about the words. (For which I can never thank him enough.)
But DWG taught me how truly unimportant words are. If you start writing a story that puts Darcy and Elizabeth in a perilous situation, you can have malapropisms in every line and grammar mistakes in more than half the text, and you’ll still have a lot of comments and a large following.
I’m not saying that people don’t care about words and mistakes, and I’m not going to say that most fanfic authors are illiterate – both would be false. At DWG though there are writers from all over the world and from all avocations. People write in their spare time and don’t spend hours polishing for the best word.
Most of them are still easily on a par with published work. One or two are startlingly bad with words. And there is one who, for a while, had a “fandom” of this author’s own, devoted to analyzing and making fun of the tortured sentences.
And yet, even this language-slaying author had a real fandom, that followed the posted serials with bated breath and gave the author much love in comments.
Why? Well, because the plot of these series were almost unbearably tortured. There were kidnappings and murders and mad wives in towers, and men pining away for love, and women who were despoiled and… Yeah, I know, you’re laughing “all the elements of cheap melodrama.”
I will remind you that this melodrama sold more than any of our more plausible and restrained novels sell. I’ll also say that while the lack of internal logic annoys me – personally – a lot of people LIKE these extreme situations. Why? Because the extreme situations bring forth extreme emotions.
And in the end, people read to follow the emotions, to fee what characters they care about are feeling.
What I found at DWG is that the words mattered far less than characters people could love and situations that enthralled them or made them empathize.
What do you think? Should an author shamelessly play with the audience’s feelings? Do you read for the feeling of it? What makes you return again and again to an author?