Friday, January 28, 2011

Sophistication Ain't Everything

It seems that people are seriously not interested in rubrics, so I'm going to shelve that for now.

I wanted to write it though, because I see a lot of screaming about quality going on in writer forums these days. With self-publishing being so easy now, and so many writers having success at it, yes, it's true, there will be a flood of awful awful awful writing. That is undeniable.

And while some indie writers are in denial about that, most newbies are worried about it. Without the stamp of approval of a publisher, how does the writer know if he or she is ready to publish? (I mean, forget the audience trying to find a good book among the dreck, how does the writer know?) So I wanted to start writing tips toward learning and improving on your own.

But maybe that was the wrong place to start. Maybe the indies aren't the only ones who need a little education. Maybe first we need to take on the bugaboo of what quality standards are.

Because they're a-changin'.

Standards of quality always change. That's not new. However, we're in a spot where there are going to be some big changes. And some of our deeply held ideas of what constitutes "quality" are about to take a real lickin.'

Don't get me wrong... Quality matters. But it's going to be a whole different thing when there isn't a gate keeper. This may surprise a lot of teenagers and traditional publishing folk but:

Sophistication isn't the end-all be-all of the universe.

I remember when the first Harry Potter book came out. Pretty much all my writing friends -- who at that time were all children's fantasy writers and fans -- were unimpressed. There was a lot of tsking and sighing and discussion over what a naive and unsophisticated book it was, and how it couldn't hold a candle to (fill in the name of your favorite under appreciated but established writer of children's fantasy).

By the time the third book was out, though, everybody had got over it, and they loved it and didn't even remember their earlier reaction.

A little time later, one of my writer friends who mentored young writers on an online critique group, blew her top over a foolish young newbie who insisted on putting random and unexplained apple tree in the middle of desert -- and then arguing about it. The newbie insisted that with fantasy, she could do anything she wanted. Nobody had a right to criticize her for it. Now, this newbie hadn't just done that. She was the sort to fiercely defend everything. She undoubtedly should have listened to the experienced writer.


When I heard the second story, I couldn't help but remember the the Harry Potter thing. AND, then the experienced writer went on to complain about how there was a terrible plague of incongruous apple trees in all the newbie manuscripts....

I couldn't help but think, "Hmmmm, these young writers may not be good writers, but they are passionate members of our audience. Maybe they're writing that because they really want to see that in the books they read. Maybe it's a sign we sophisticated folk have gone overboard in restricting incongruous apple trees."

I made the mistake of suggesting that aloud, and I think I might have caused some strokes among my writing friends. I may have even made some enemies. That was the first time I realized just how fiercely attached my fellow writers were to sophistication. It was like I'd attacked mother and apple pie.

Now, I'm not saying these people were really snobs or even foolish. But I do think they were conditioned to think inside a box. And at that time, the box was necessary. You had to think inside it to be published, and unfortunately in the thirty odd years I've been writing, I've watched the box get smaller and smaller.

Psychologically it's related to the process of growing up:

A little kid loves a teddy bear and takes it to school, where he is informed by the other kids that that's baby stuff. So he hides it, and takes up the more sophisticated toy around the other kids. A girl likes sweet romantic stuff, and hears here friends make fun of that kind of thing, while swooning over sexy rockstars or vampires, so she converts her fantasy to something darker, and hides what she really likes. Somebody makes fun of sparkly vampires and a college kid converts to loving 19th century Russian literature.

And in all of these cases, we actually like the sophisticated thing too. And while we're young, we think it's a part of growing up to give up what you loved earlier. Eventually, though, we get to the point where we can admit that the Muppets are actually pretty cool. And a grown up CAN own a teddy bear and even display it publicly.

And in a natural world, that same thing happens to our sophistication in writing and publishing. The problem came over the past thirty years or so that the submission process got harder and harder.

I remember when I started, editors would tell me that just knowing proper manuscript form, and being able to spell, would put a person ahead of half to two-thirds of the pack. In other words, it was a major mark of sophistication. It wasn't exactly a secret handshake, but it was close. A well presented manuscript said you knew something.

But that changed, gradually but not all that slowly, as workshops and writing books, and word of mouth made writers more sophisticated about format, and slush piles got deeper at the same time editorial budgets were cut back. As it got harder to get noticed, the writers began to work at more and more sophisticated ways to stand out.

And something happened to the writing as a result. And I don't think it was driven by the publishers. It was driven by the system itself.

If you have a thousand manuscripts, and only a short time to judge them, and the writers KNOW that.... You're going to end up with a whole culture of people bent on proving their sophistication and knowledge and savvy with every atom of their being.

It's like the way young actresses get plastic surgery to look like an exaggerated version of some fantasy. And pretty soon the producers are insisting on it, and the audience is used to it and starts to expect it. But it still leaves people starved for something else.

Yes, it's true, writers need to write better. Our stories deserve to the be the best they can be, and we need to stand out and really communicate to our audience.

Quality DOES matter.

But now that we don't need the nose job, breast implants and poofy lip injections to get hired, we're going to have to sort out just what real quality is.

I hate to say that pro writers are awfully attached to their sophistication-enhancement products -- because after all, a big part of the audience wants that -- but I think a lot of people are going to be surprised at how you don't have to prove you're sophisticated to be sophisticated. And how sometimes sophistication is really not necessary or even desired.

See you in the funny papers.

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