Monday, October 25, 2010

Ruminations on Choices

Over the last several months I’ve come across three writers who set out to write one book and were nudged into another direction by an agent or editor. All three ended up with a successful book, but one that bore little resemblance to the one they began, and each one has had a different reaction to the entire experience. I’ve listened and sympathized and tried to imagine how I’d feel if I faced the same dilemma—accept the editor’s guidance and produce a successful book, or hew tenaciously, even stubbornly, to my original intent and produce something more satisfying to me but probably less successful.

I’ve had plenty of experience writing for hire, and have gladly used my skills to produce textbook chapters and whole books on topics that hold little personal interest for me. Writing is a skill I have, and I’m glad to apply it to whatever comes along—and pays reasonably well. But I haven’t been put in the position of having to change my original intent in a book or essay that I developed.

This is where many of us, myself included, are ready to think, and say, that we’d hold out and produce the book that was true to our vision. We’re idealists, or we like to think we are, willing to stick to our principles. We believe we know what the best book on this topic is, or the best one we can produce, and we want to see that one make it into print. Or, perhaps we’d go in the other direction and say, yes, of course, we’d do whatever the editor wanted without a second thought. We’re professional writers and we write to deadline, producing what the client wants—a speech for a conference, a grant for several thousand dollars, a book review, an article on laws protecting animals. Writing is writing, and the advance tells us we’re expected to produce something that will sell. Or, maybe we’re born negotiators and we size up the “opposition” to our idea and try to find the middle ground, something we can still commit ourselves to passionately while incorporating the editor’s or agent’s suggestions. The real experiences of my colleagues haven’t been quite like this.

One writer, an accomplished academic, told me that it took her over a year to figure out what was going on. During the entire writing process, she’d thought the editor was obtuse, difficult, and perverse in her suggestions. After months of this tug of war the editor signed off on the final manuscript and said to the writer, “You were so hard to work with—you were deaf to our instructions. Your book proposal was just a way to find out if you could write—we didn’t really want that book. We wanted someone who could write. We knew what the market wanted. You sure made it hard.” At the end of the whole thing my friend felt like giving up writing.

Another writer came to believe that she can’t finish her book without the help of an editor, or book doctor, as they are now less flatteringly called. She submitted her manuscript to one person after another, getting advice, some hands-on writing, and approval after approval. The final manuscript feels a bit homogenous, bland, but definitely polished. This is the result of the school of thought that holds if it is well written, the story or narrative will emerge—somehow. I suppose that gives away my view—there’s more to a good story than a polished sentence, and the writer should have buckled down and written her own book.

A third writer started out with one narrative and followed the agent’s suggestions to produce another, something different from anything she’s written in the past. I watched the book develop and even I’m not sure when it changed course and became a completely different book. Even a proposal for a crime fiction series is likely to elicit suggestions from the editor on the direction the series should take—types of protagonists, settings, plots.

The experiences of these writers seem to announce the demotion of writers, but they are balanced by the new opportunities, reflecting the kinds of changes that are taking place—writers have less and less control over their work, and writers have more and more opportunity to control their work. There’s more work-for-hire writing, less support from traditional publishers, and more opportunities to self-publish and actually sell our own work via Internet and even traditional avenues.

When I started writing fiction in college, the goal was to write well, yes, but also to write truly, authentically. Now, to even say that seems self-conscious and pretentious, and yet the vision of this kind of work lingers.

My three friends have books they’re somewhat satisfied with, and certainly are pleased with the success they’re having. But when I listen to them talk, I hear in at least two of them that bittersweet sense that somehow their book got away from them and became something else, something they like but something that is not quite theirs.

For anyone who writes the underlying goal has to be to write something that only that person could write, taking advice as it comes, keeping the sensible and abandoning the rest, using it to help make the work stronger. I don’t know if we really are beset with more challenges to producing a book according to the writer’s own vision than writers in earlier decades or centuries, or if the challenges are the norm for working in a commercial world, but at least they make me think deeply about what I want any particular work to be, and that always makes for a better book.

The world of the writer today makes me think of the advice that people in social services often hear—change is the constant, attitude is the variable. This is what I keep in mind whenever I start any new project--I let it go, follow it, and learn as much as possible from the whole experience.

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