Saturday, October 4, 2008

Writing For The Hell Of It

The new issue of Wired magazine includes a nice article on Neal Stephenson, author of Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and the just-published Anathem. The article talks about Stephenson's love of gadgets, about the millennium clock that the Long Now Foundation is planning (it's supposed to last 10,000 years), and about Stephenson's books. One paragraph in particular caught my attention.

Stephenson told the interviewer (Steven Levy) that his first two books were positively received but didn't sell particularly well. He then set out to collaborate with an uncle on a few political potboilers in a deliberate attempt to emulate Tom Clancy's success. This did not work. In 1991, Stephenson is quoted as saying, his career "was moving along at low rpms." So he decided to forget aiming at a large audience and "just go for broke, write something really weird, and not be so worried about whether it was a good career move or not." The result was Snow Crash, the book that catapulted him to SF fame.

The reason I was so interested in this account was not because it was new to me, but because it is so familiar. I've heard from so many writers that only began to sell when they abandoned attempts to please "the market" and wrote stories they genuinely connected with, cared about, were interested in, and were written it in their own unique voices. In my own case, I have two unpublished novels and a few stray stories that were dead sets at what I thought of as a "bigger and better audience." All now are merely dead.

I tell my students this all the time. However, not all of them listen. They should listen -- if not to me, then to Neal Stephenson. Career moves may work in, say, corporate finance, but in fiction, passion works best.


Ann said...

This is good advice to hear from someone who writes because when I have gone to workshops with writers, publishers and such, I hear "look at the market and what sells". I guess there is something to that, but write at all if the subject matter isn't something that captivates you?

TheOFloinn said...

If the book doesn't grab you, you can hardly expect it to grab someone else. It's not "write it and they will come." But that if what you write is not inspired by a genuine interest, it doesn't matter how popular the =genre= is.

We see this in Hollywood constantly, where cookie cutter imitations never seem to have the grab that an imaginative original does.

Colin Y.J. Chung said...


I guess you just have to keep pounding the "basics" into your students.

I've been thinking about this a lot in the last month... not as a fiction writer, but as someone embarking on a copywriting/online business... and the accepted school of thought that every guru keeps pounding into new entrepreneurs is, "find a hungry market, find a hungry market..."

But if you don't care one bit for that market... say for example, "single mom parenting"... it's nearly impossible to sell to them if you don't care about their frustrations, fears and desires.

I see writing fiction from a marketing viewpoint... (it's essentially product creation)... and writing to cater to an audience you don't care about is suicide.

Thanks for the post.

Colin Y.J. Chung

bluesman miike Lindner said...

Characters you care about in danger--that's what readers want.
Nancy, off-topic, but an ah-deer for your next novel--
1) Write MOBY DICK from the =whale's= POV. (So what Gardner did it with GRENDEL? You're much better than he was.)
2) Take the manuscript to a Rochester recording studio. (There are some good ones.)
3) Read the tale through a vocoder and a synth to mutate your voice into something approximating whalesong.
4) Package the yarn as a book and
free CDs of the "whalesong."
5) Sit back and relax as the kudos roll in. NYT:"Unique and fascinating. This is Nancy Kress at the top of her award-winning game."

Nice ah-deer, right, Nancy?


cd said...

But this is true of content but not form, right? That is, supposedly one still studies what attracts people to the form of the plot, characters, and so on, but then applies the techniques to particulars of personal interest. I say that because if one has a passion for stories with bored and passive characters who get into no trouble and don't act, one is not going to sell. So, isn't the real rule, write in a popular way about something that passionately interests you...?

Nancy Kress said...

Craig-- Does ANYBODY have a passion for bored characters who don't act?

Yes, I think study of how a story is constructed is a good thing. But nothing replaces a burning desire to write this particular tale. After enough years (decades?) of writing, the forms and conventions become automatic. Then passion is all there is.

Neal Holtschulte said...

I too read this Wired article and became a fan of Stephenson after reading Snow Crash, but I have a problem with the lovely story of passion => success.

The authors of Freakonmics define conventional wisdom thus: a set of unproven facts, hypotheses we like to believe true because they make us feel comfortable and give us some sense of control over what happens around us.

Are these "passion to success" stories so common? or do they merely seem that way because the people telling them are the ones that became successful, and also because we want to believe them like so much other conventional wisdom?

But what really bothers me about the passion => success formula is that it seems to imply
unsuccessful => unpassionate. Obviously many other factors are involved and I'm sure neither Neal nor Nancy is implying this, yet I smell it in the subtext. Maybe I'm the only one.

I do believe the formula to some degree, but often I come home from work dog-tired and I say to myself, "what are you passionate about? Write about it!" Then I stare at the dust between my keyboard keys, and I stare, and I stare.

bluesman miike Lindner said...

"Passion for characters who don't act"? Sure! Beckett! I will go to my lonesome grave without understanding how that fraud won the Nobel Prize for Literature. He had =nothing= to say besides describing in tedious detail his psychic vacuum, his inner void. This is great stuff? Horseshit. I can kinda understand why post-war Europeans related to his tired nihilism. But Americans? Gang, his stuff if =worthless=! Anybody says different to you, tell them to their face they're a poser. And give them a copy of HUCKLEBERRY FINN.

cd said...

"Craig-- Does ANYBODY have a passion for bored characters who don't act?"

I was going to say Beckett also (much of whose work I admire -- I was in fact reading _Watt_ when I stopped to check in here...).

Mark said...

1) Create your passion.
2) Market it to the most appropriate market.
3) This market may not be the most fashionable, highest paying, but "making $1 beats not making $1million."
4) Enjoy not having to hold your nose (you've grown roses even if few others will smell them).

jamiegrove said...

I spent the last two years trying to invent someone to write like and before that I spent 16 years trying to write like everybody else. I've tossed all that out the window now and I'm just doing what I do, having a blast and playing with fiction.

Great post, Nancy!

Ann Handley said...

This is an awesome piece of advice... (found you from Twitter). I love it -- "Write for the hell of it." Well said.