Sunday, June 8, 2014

Notes For Writers - Upon Entering Writing School

For the last year, I've been mentoring a very bright young writer. This student is preternaturally skillful and desires a career as a writer of entertainment novels, and I believe this writer can make it as a commercial novelist. This writer has also been accepted into a great writing program and possibly doesn't know of a potential conflict between the writer's goals and the program's focus.

This presented a dilemma. Prestigious writing programs almost universally teach writing as art, not as entertainment. Writing as art - what we call literary writing - is instructive, helpful, worthy, and generally wonderful. And the stellar examples of literary writing will be studied forever. However, literary writing comes up short in one significant area. It generally doesn't sell very well, which makes it difficult for literary writers to ever quit their day jobs and pay the bills with writing alone. There are, of course, notable exceptions to this generalization, literary novels that find a wide audience and make their writers financially comfortable. But they are rare exceptions.

In contrast, the vast majority of novels that earn much money fall into the category of writing as entertainment.

Thus my dilemma was whether or not I should tell this young writer about the usual writing program focus on literary writing, a focus that sometimes disparages the very writing that this young writer hopes to pursue for both emotional fulfillment as well as financial success.

Both categories of writing are valuable. Learning all one can about literary writing could only benefit an entertainment writer and vice versa. The problem comes in the attitude with which literary writing is taught. Many literary writers feel that their calling is loftier and worthier than the calling of entertainment writers. At best, some literary writers are indifferent and believe there is some value in most writing. At worst, some literary writers are condescending toward entertainment writers. As an entertainment writer, I've personally experienced this condescension many times, from universities to community colleges to writing conferences to poetry slams to support groups.

I decided that the writer I've been helping should know of this possibility in advance of attending the writing program.

So I wrote the writer a letter. Because other writers may be interested in this subject, I print much of it here:

Dear Young Writer,

Once again, you've impressed me with your story. Great characters (some of whom we cheer on and some of whom we love to hate!) and great plotting. I'm eager to see where this story goes.

I've done my usual scratchings all over your pages, mostly finding nothing to fix other than fussy copy edits. All the important stuff, the characters, the plot, the storytelling, is really good.

Many congratulations are deserved for getting accepted into such a famous writing program! I expect that you will receive a marvelous education and benefit from it for the rest of your life.

While I want you to be enthusiastic about all that your university has to offer, I also want to give you the caveat that many if not most writing professors in MFA programs have a strong bias toward literary writing, and they celebrate those stories and styles that garner National Book Awards and Pulitzers etc. Although there are numerous and notable exceptions to much of what I'm about to say, these literary works are often realistic stories with beautiful sentences, strong characters, purposefully weak plots, and bleak endings. Many professors are suspicious of strong plots, and are especially uncomfortable with stories that end well and hence are not realistic and true to life.

Your professors may well love your writing, and I'm certain they will like you. But if you should find that your teachers are not as enthusiastic about your storytelling as you'd like, please remember that they are generally not enthusiastic about the writing of most successful writers of popular fiction, especially the ones who have found the greatest audience. This has been the case for hundreds of years, and there are many writers who were successful in their day who were considered hacks by the critics and the professors. Some of those writers are celebrated now. Even Shakespeare was considered to be nothing notable during his lifetime.

There is a frightful snobbishness in some circles that equates popularity with bad writing. Of course, many popular novels are bad writing. But there is no causality. To dismiss popular writing simply because it's popular is absurd, yet many in the literary community do just that. The contrary also applies. To celebrate writing simply because of its literary pretensions is equally absurd.

There is a catchphrase in the online writing community that says that just because Big Macs are popular doesn't make them great food. This is a silly straw man argument. It is easy (especially for a good writer) to twist the discussion such that a pejorative judgment about entertainment writing seems obvious and appropriate, ignoring the fact that no one is saying that popular writing is inherently good any more than popular food is inherently good. This applies across many arenas. For example, everyone knows that more people frame and hang prints of typical pretty pictures or contemporary pop art in their homes than hang prints of art that has been endorsed by art critics. But that doesn't make all pretty pictures bad. The list of visual artists who painted pop art and were once scorned by critics and professors but now take up wings in museums is as long as the list of writers who were once dismissed or ignored but are now considered good or even great. Some of those very writers are even studied in graduate writing programs.

The slow process of critics coming around to appreciate successful writers has accelerated just a bit in recent years. Stephen King is still reviled by many literary writing teachers, although some have begun to reluctantly acknowledge that he is quite a good storyteller. Eventually, he will likely be regarded as a something of a master who wrote some spotty stuff in with the good stuff. J.K Rowling has undergone a similar trajectory. The general opinion in MFA circles is that if it's popular, it can't really be good unless it was written by Barbara Kingsolver or Richard Ford or Alice Walker or Saul Bellow or... You get the idea. Working in the thriller and mystery genres, I've always noticed the writers who were pejoratively categorized as pulp and noir writers years ago, writers who are now studied extensively in many writing programs (Think James M. Cain, Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard).

Among the MFA crowd, there is a deep mistrust of the preferences of average readers. Much the way "serious" film critics rarely praise popular movies and instead heap their praises on “art films,” people in the business of literary writing might feel foolish if they found anything to praise in a work of popular fiction. They might even worry that their colleagues would think they'd gone soft and lost their edge.

By the way, I should point out that there is nothing wrong with “writing as art.” Writers like James Joyce are still celebrated even though almost no one reads their work. I only take exception to literary writing teachers dismissing entertainment writing wholesale. (I think of the way T.S. Eliot dismissed Hamlet. It brought Eliot some notoriety, but it didn't seem to nick Shakespeare's cred.)

It could be argued that any novel that people eagerly pick up in order to escape the minutia of day-to-day life is something to respect. It could be argued that any novel that simply gets people reading - people who otherwise might sit in front of the TV - is something to admire.

I mention all this because I believe you have an understanding of story that will, with practice, allow you to find success as a writer of popular fiction. You know what the characteristics of successful popular fiction are - a strongly sympathetic protagonist in deep trouble early on, other distinct characters, good and bad, a prominent antagonist who is believably evil, and a pounding plot, rising to a big climax.

Some of the very characteristics that will help you launch a successful writing career, strong plots, for example, are characteristics that are sometimes treated as crassly commercial in advanced writing programs. Never mind that the pounding plot is one of the characteristics that Shakespeare rode to the top of everyone's list. (Except T.S. Eliot's) If a contemporary writer wrote plots as over-the-top as Hamlet, everyone in the business, including writing professors, would laugh. But of course, readers would voraciously suck it up and make that writer rich.

So while I applaud your school choice, and I believe you will find it a fantastic experience, I also want you to be strong if you get any flack for those aspects of your writing that will help you to find commercial success. You may see professors praising well-written stories that are moody and bleak and not very exciting. They may use as fine writing examples stories that are so rich with metaphor as to be inscrutable. They may commend character transformations so subtle that no one outside of writing classes even notices them. They may fill your studies with complex discussions of literary theory and aesthetics, all of which are good but some of which might distract from your focus.

If these things happen, don't let it intimidate you. Those moody, bleak stories with little or no plot don't generally sell. Their writers sometimes win prestigious awards, but most of them have to work a day job their entire lives. There are of course literary writers who get good advances and find a large audience. But with “good” advances trending below $30,000 (especially for literary fiction), and with the net after taxes, agent fees, and expenses being a portion of that, it is very difficult to earn a living. To add perspective, the average advance on a novel is now $5000. Divide by the number of hours it takes to write a novel and you can see that any sane writer would either augment their hobby with a teaching career or else focus on polishing up their “entertainment writing” chops.

In contrast, successful entertainment writers will find higher average advances (because their books sell better). Research will uncover many entertainment writers who get $75,000 advances and, by writing multiple series, do that with two or three books a year. Carry that forward for a 20 or 30-year writing career, and it adds up.

And in the new world of publishing, increasing numbers of authors are jumping their New York Publisher's ships and finding that they don't need a publisher to reach an audience. So why give a publisher the majority of the income? Many of the growing numbers of successful self-published authors are making more money than all but the very top tier of New York-published authors.

What does this have to do with your writing school?

This is another area that elicits groans from many in the literary community. Because the MFA crowd regards the imprimatur of a New York publisher as the required indication of approval for any writing, the author who goes it alone is considered to be trapped in the ghetto of self-publishing, clearly unworthy.

This critique group also overlooks the many authors they revere who started out - and in some cases have gone back to - self-publishing. Or maybe they simply don't know how many of their favorite authors have a long and/or current history with self-publishing.

Keep the faith. Stories like yours have value. Stories like yours provide entertainment for countless readers. Stories like yours sell. And writers like you - after a lot of practice and polishing your chops and, usually, multiple books - get to have the greatest job in the world. Your commute is from your desk to the coffee maker, you can stay up as late as you want, sleep in as late as you want, and you have no boss hanging over your shoulder. And you will get thousands of gushing emails from happy readers, asking you to write faster!

I don't want you to get a chip on your shoulder. There will be a great deal to learn from your professors, and it will be worth every minute. But don't let the literary community make you doubt the value of your goal to earn a living as an entertainment writer. Writing popular fiction compared to writing literary fiction is like swing dancing or jazz dancing compared to ballet. It's like playing music by ear compared to following the strict dictates of a score. It's like painting the subject of your choice in the studio of your choice rather than mastering figure drawing at an atelier before you are allowed to start using color pigment. It's like free skiing in deep powder compared to a rigorous discipline of slalom racing. All the above categories have value, and none is better than the others, but the former in each case is probably more fun. And for writers, entertainment writing certainly pays far more on average than literary writing, which allows you to chuck the day job once you find your audience.

So learn as much as you can, but don't ever jettison what you already know about writing fiction. You may even find yourself writing in two styles, one to satisfy teachers (nothing wrong with that) and another style to satisfy your future readers. All will be good practice and a good experience.

Good luck, have fun, and stay in touch!



  1. Beautifully put Todd! Although I'm not about to begin a writing program of any kind, I have recently outlined and begun writing a (hopefully entertaining) novel and your words in this post really puts things into perspective. Thank you for what you wrote here and what you continue to write in your Owen McKenna series.

    1. Glad you liked the post! I wish you the best with your writing!