Saturday, August 20, 2016

Writing for the "marketplace"

Anne on writing.

One thing I believed early on: readers have a right to pure enjoyment. If you won't give them plot, spectacle, suspense, some glamour, then don't complain if they don't want to read your work.

I found myself amongst disillusioned academic writers who felt they were "better" than those topping the bestseller lists, alienated from a public who didn't appreciate their fine small realistic psychological novels about upper middle class life and its endless small frustrations. I never had much sympathy with all that. Yes, there were crude writers atop the bestseller lists but when you took the time to read bestselling novels, you could see the skill, the passion, the relentless storytelling, the appeal.

I figured I could offer spectacle, plot, suspense and glamour -- the things I loved -- and still write a novel with depth. I took Aristotle's reflections on successful tragedy to heart; I wanted my work to have heroes, real heroes, and plenty of spectacle and plot, fine writing (the finest I could do) and to arouse pity and fear and produce catharsis.

I saw a total absence of these elements in the "better" serious fiction of America, the pedestrian realism anointed as the national literature with its "ordinary" folk in inevitable situations, striving for small insights. Understand, there was much great writing in these "better" serious "realistic" novels. But I wanted wider appeal. I have some deep constitutional aversion to elites. Yes, they may be the custodians of artistic values, but I admire and desire the art that moves "the people." After all, I am "the people." I love Elvis and Maria Callas; Jackie Susann and Charles Dickens; "Splendor in the Grass" with Natalie Wood and Lawrence Olivier's Hamlet. I read literary criticism and comic books. I crave poetry and night time soaps. I wanted my books in student backpacks and on kitchen shelves in trailers and other homes, in libraries and in drugstores. I was actually terrified of small, limited, respectable success. So I wrote big bizarre and unwieldy books in which vampires or witches talked of "souls" or "eternity."

Well, it paid off for me with the audience I love and respect and identify with. So my advice to other writers will always be: do what you want, do what you love, write the books you want to read. Never study or reflect on "the marketplace" and try to craft a fiction to meet its demands. And if you want to write for literary critics, good luck with that. I know nothing about it.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Research and writing

Anne here. I'm asked a lot about research and writing. And I've become known over the years for historical accuracy in my period fiction.

At the same time, I've heard people criticize the use of research in fiction. I once sat silent and mortified during a writing workshop while members of the group told a writer that research wasn't the way to write a novel. The novel in question was about a girl in a Russian Jewish village pre-World War I. These helpful critics actually told the writer that research wasn't creative, etc. I thought this the worst possible type of criticism and advice.

The fact is you cannot write historical fiction or use historical settings if you don't do research, and research IS highly creative and inspiring. When you go into every day life in a bygone era, you turn up all sorts of details that can inspire new stories, new characters. You cannot help but wonder how a strong courageous person in a bygone era dealt with restrictive laws and situations that we don't have today.

Research can be fun, and it can even be addicting. And the bookshelves of the world are filled with great novels by those who took the time to do research as well as write to the best of their ability.

But the bottom line is this: as a writer, you do what is good for you, you follow your own obsessions, your passions, and you go with your enthusiasms. You dive into the research that sends you rushing to the keyboard to write a new story, create a new hero, set the stage for a new drama.

Why anyone would criticize research as anti-creative I cannot imagine. The Tale of Two Cities and War and Peace are both historical novels.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

We can learn from everything and anything

Anne, with more on writing:

I came of age in a world that snubbed popular writers. I didn't. I wanted to know why people loved them. I have read Jackie Susann's novels twice. I marvel at her raw energy, her driving storytelling, and the amazing details she includes with the abandon of a primitive painter.

I'll learn from anybody--from the poems of William Butler Yeats, or the novels of Sidney Sheldon, from Dostoevsky or a television commercial for dishwashing powder that tells a whole family story in sixty seconds. I have loved analyzing television soap operas for what drives their plots; I cam away from Star Wars movies wanting to create a deep and intricate cosmology of evil as rooted in the human heart as opposed to an abstract force outside of us.

We can learn from everything and anything, as I see it.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Anne on receiving bad writing advice

Anne on writing:

From the beginning, I got really bad advice on just about every aspect of writing: write about ordinary people; write about your own family; write about the day to day life of those around you; serious literature is pedestrian realism.

NONE of this works for me! I had to follow my own eccentric path, creating novels that no one could classify or explain. I craved the spectacle of historical setting, and the agony of tragic characters--rebels, outcasts, monsters.

If I'd followed all that early advice I would have been a bad novelist never really mining the white hot passion inside me. Thank heaven for me that I just couldn't do it. A serious novel in which every character is a vampire? Well, yes, I HAD to try that!

And if my career proves anything, it is that if a person fervently believes in her own vision, no matter how eccentric or weird, well, somebody else may believe in it, too.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The true secret to becoming a bestseller

Anne on writing:

It's an open secret in the book world that nobody knows what makes a bestseller. Nobody has a clue. And that's good. Writing is the most democratic of all creative fields, providing room for Franz Kafka and Fifty Shades of Grey.

Any writer who sets out to imitate bestsellers is missing the point. What makes the top of the bestseller list over and over again is complete unanticipated originality. If publishers knew what would succeed they wouldn't need us. They don't know. And usually when some surprising book comes out of nowhere to sell millions, there's a list behind it of agents and editors who turned it down thinking it didn't have a chance.

All this is great -- great for the individual writer out there struggling to mine her own obsessions, visions, dreamworlds, for the story that feels inevitable, no matter how peculiar.

Now and then a publisher foresees a greatness in a manuscript and is correct, as in the story of Gone with the Wind. But for every score like that, publishers can tell you about their abysmal failures. Again, this is all good, good for the guy in the garage office or the woman typing away on her laptop on the kitchen table -- for every writer with no inside connections, or clues as to how to "succeed" who just goes on writing.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Teacher Anne?

Anne on writing:

When I was preparing to go to college and major in journalism, with dreams of being a writer, an aunt advised me to major in elementary education, to revise my dreams, and to go for a practical job as a schoolteacher. She emphasized among other things that exceptional people, geniuses, etc., were not happy. She thought my dreams even of being a newspaper reporter were fantasy.

Decades later, that aunt was a regular at my book signings in her area. She'd appear with piles of my novels to be personalized for friends and other relatives. I was always glad to see her. I liked her. I never reminded her of that moment, the moment she advised me to shelve my dreams. It would have been unkind to do that. But I never forgot that moment either. She was a lovely and generous lady. She meant well.

But I meant well too when I completely ignored her proposal for my life, and went my own way to become a writer. (By the way, I have nothing but admiration for school teachers; I think they are undervalued and underpaid. And we need them desperately. But it wasn't the life for me. I would have been bad at it.)

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Thank God for "genre fiction"

Anne on writing:

As far as I know, the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries are the ONLY time in the history of the West that people have thought high literature had to be pedestrian realism about the everyday lives of the middle class.

Imagine someone taking Shakespeare aside and saying, "Now, Will, you've never known a prince of Denmark, or a Scottish witch. Isn't it time for you to write something serious, something about what you know? Write about your hometown, Will, your family, about real people in real situations that people can relate to."

Yes, pedestrian realism has created classics like Kings Row, To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Sun Also Rises. But it is not the ONLY path to greatness in literature.

Thank God Mary Shelley pursued her man-made monster in Frankenstein and the Brontes did not stifle their larger than life Heathcliff or Mr. Rochester; and that Dickens boldly gave life to Miss Havisham in her rotting wedding gown. Thank God Poe wrote his grim metaphorical short stories and poems, and Hawthorne created Goodman Brown, and Bram Stoker gave life to Dracula. Thank God for Melville's great white whale and Conan Doyle's genius Sherlock Holmes (and Sherlock's brother Mycroft!)