{an exchange on art}


Photo credit: Debbie Ridpath Ohi, from her blog Inky Girl, ©2014

Today, I sent Debbie’s inspirational photograph to my writing group, and added the following words:

RESIST THE TRENDS. Resist the frigid breath of the publishing industry, breathing down your neck, trying to get you to focus on The Market and What Editors Want. WHO CARES. Write the best story you know how. Write you heart out, all over the page. Look into the convex lens of your imaginary audience and tell the true – the REAL true that makes you dig down and get personal and a little afraid and maybe weep a little. Write what you’re finding a glimmer of, but fear maybe others won’t understand. Write what scares you, what hurts you, what disgusts you, what seduces you.

…and THEN worry about the stupid industry.

As is often the case, the quotation shared started a dialogue with a friend. Her response (appropriately anonymized):

The problem is I did write the story that came to me, and now I’m worrying about the market, because my story won’t sell.

Not to be a naysayer and a downer, but I listened to Justin Chanda, and his speech was inspirational, BUT…

They (and by they, I mean editors and agents and publishers) say to not worry about the market and write your own story, and then in the next breath, they say, “We’re not taking ______, ________, _________, because those trends are over.” Fill in the blanks with your story idea(s).

They want the next big thing, but they also want the current hot trend. He’s right that we cannot predict the trends or write to them, but on the other hand, the trends exist and if you happen to have something that doesn’t match what they’re looking for–even if it’s well written–the answer will still be tough luck, Charlie.

I sat through that conference depressed and disheartened, despite Justin’s smiling face. Many of the agents there were closed to submissions, including conference goers. (I kept wondering, “Then why are you here?”) And all of them were pretty down on YA–especially speculative fiction. The ones who were taking submissions wanted realistic, please, something like John Green, only not a cancer book (aka trend over).


I walked away with the decision that I’m just going to write for me and not worry about publication or querying. No pressure. No what if. No fear if it’s good enough. No second-guessing the critiques I’ll receive and wondering what everyone won’t like, what I need to fix, etc. Just me and my own joy in making up a story.

…Right now, I just want to finish [my] manuscript and enjoy the ride.

Trying to experience the journey and not worry about the end…

I tried to choose my words carefully – because I know it’s easy for me to say “Oh, don’t give up! Don’t let the market rule you!” when I’ve already been published, and my friend hasn’t yet, but I believe so strongly that she will be that “yet” is the only word I can use. I replied:

And that is what I mean about not worrying about the trend.
I don’t at all belittle what was said at conference, what you heard, or what you found inspirational —
What I have a problem with is PERPETUATING. If we keep writing books that are what people want? We’re keeping the world – this dominant culture, youth worshiping, lucre-loving, hypocritically class conscious, culturally clueless, mean (girl/guy) enabling, tech obsessed – this disappointing, shallow world exactly the way it is.

Okay, so astronauts get to grow up and change the world. People expect that of the hard sciences – they’re researching, they’re making discoveries – right? People don’t expect that from art. We’re just… making pretty pictures. Scribbling words. It’s not like we’re curing cancer. We don’t change the world… or, so you’d think.

ART IS POWERFUL. The act of creation — the experience of seeing yourself reflected in a creation — we can’t possibly ignore that thrill. Art – and our place in it – has the potential to be transformative. We cannot possibly content ourselves with just regurgitating something made up by talking heads in publishing firms whose ego and paycheque is tied to perpetuating the status quo. Another-John-Green-But-Not-Cancer realistic fiction novel – my square backside; we can do better than that. We CAN do better than that. OUR stories are real – for a given value of “real” in fiction – not contrived and cobbled to meet some trend. YES, marketing and money rule supreme in the industry, but the industry doesn’t move without us. I truly believe that the best stories — and a disturbing number of outright craptacular ones and generic “meh” ones — will continue to be told.

You’re right: it’s not important to be THE best in the industry, especially because that is totally subjective. Being your best is what’s going to make creating your stories satisfying – it’s what’s going to make your words fly, and your story arc and your big-picture metaphors sing like the tapped edge of a crystal goblet – that tiny chime that says ‘real.’

Here’s to being the genuine article.

The conversation on literature and breaking into the market isn’t over, of course – this was just a piece of it. There’s a lot of hope, and a lot of despair in publishing; a lot of unrealized dreams and normalizing the status quo, but it’s still my hope that things will change. Here’s to that day.

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