Okay, this isn’t really fluffy, but since it’s a non-fat-related meme, and we are in the midst of the Pre-holiday Cavalcade of Fluff, I’m categorizing it as such.
The lovely Harriet Brown said some very kind things about my writing and tagged me with a “Roar for Powerful Words.” What I love about this meme, other than the flattery, is that as you pass it along, you’re supposed to include three requirements for powerful writing. In reading through the Roar posts, I’ve already found one tip I’d never seen put into words before, which I think is fucking brilliant. From Lisa Romeo, who tagged Harriet:
Remember that no one cares. About you. About your story. But that readers really do care about themselves. The really good nonfiction writers help the readers find themselves in our stories.
I think that’s entirely true of the really good fiction writers, too. If I can’t relate to the characters, I don’t give a rat’s ass what happens to them, which means I don’t give a rat’s ass about your book. You can write the prettiest sentences in the world, but if your characters are flat or stereotypical or so misanthropic I hope they die in a fire, I won’t make it past page 20. (Yes, I’m looking at you, literary writers who think you’re above such “commercial” concerns as, you know, telling a story well.)
Anyway. Having thought neither long nor hard about this question, here are my three requirements.
1. Know what you do well, and what you don’t.
Along the same lines of giving up The Fantasy of Being Thin, one of my biggest breakthroughs as a writer was giving up the fantasy of being brilliant, mind-bendingly complex, witty, heartbreaking, wildly original, lyrical, literary, accessible, suspenseful, insightful, challenging, and commercially successful, all at the same time. There are only a couple things on that list I actually do well — and notably, being lyrical, literary, wildly original and mind-bendingly complex are not among them. If I’m good at anything (and that is, of course, debatable), it’s telling fairly simple stories with wit and heart. But I didn’t want to acknowledge that for the longest fucking time, because A) “Heart” is so friggin’ cheesy (so unliterary!), and B) Applying humor to serious subjects means sitting through a lot of workshops where people go, “I don’t get it! I mean, am I supposed to care about her, or think this is funny?” BOTH, YOU FUCKING DOLT. Eventually, though, I had to admit that doing what I’m good at — and not straining to do anything else — tends to make my stories a lot more fun to read. Go fig.
2. If you “don’t write for other people,” then put it in a goddamned drawer and be done with it.
Of all the standard Novice Writer Defense Mechanisms, none irritates me quite like, “I only write for myself, not for other people.” HORSESHIT. Writers write to be read — and secretly, we write to be loved. If you really only write to please yourself, then why are we having this conversation? Why am I even aware that you’re a writer? You write because you want people to read it and love you for it, even if you know there’s little chance anyone ever will. But you claim you only write for yourself because that makes it easier to dismiss criticism and refuse to consider why your writing isn’t connecting with your intended audience.
And I believe the most common reason for that is, you have no clue who your intended audience is, so you’re not offering them anything they want. See Lisa Romeo’s rule above.
You must know your readership — and if you don’t have one yet, you must imagine a specific one and write to it. This doesn’t mean not writing for yourself, necessarily — my imaginary (and, to the extent that it exists, real) audience is pretty much “people (mostly women) who would like hanging out with me, and vice versa.” It can be as simple as that. But it can’t be “I write for myself” — because that leads to writing that’s about as engaging as detailed accounts of other people’s dreams — and crucially, it also can’t be “I write for everyone!” which is, I suspect, what people who claim to write only for themselves really believe down deep.
No story is so universal or so well-told that it won’t anger some people and bore the shit out of others. So once you’ve figured out what you’re good at and started doing much more of that than anything else, the next step is figuring out what kind of people would be charmed by what you’re good at, rather than angered or bored. Then you keep those people in the back of your mind with every word you write. You’re expecting them to read this eventually (yes, you are), so it’s only common courtesy to give them something worth their time, you know?
Which brings us to…
3. Accept that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.
In order to establish a “voice” worth reading, you have to be willing to alienate some people, piss some people off, be called all sorts of nasty names, be accused alternately of hackery and pretentiousness, etc. I mean, think about it, y’all — J.K. Rowling has about the broadest possible appeal of any contemporary writer, and she’s gotten all of the above a gazillion times over. Your blog is not bloody likely to find a more universally receptive audience than she’s got. So once you’ve acknowledged that you secretly write to be loved, you then have to accept that not everyone who reads your work will love it, or you. Them’s the breaks.
Off the top of my head, I can immediately think of two writing habits I have that draw a lot of criticism — and that’s without even getting into subject matter. First, I’ve got the pottymouth to end all fucking pottymouths. Second, I never know when to shut up. (As much as I appreciate Harriet’s “less is more” advice, keeping things short and sweet is on the long list of things I do not do well as a writer, so I don’t even try anymore, beyond reasonable editing.) But rather than make my writing child-friendly or force myself to cut ten paragraphs out of every post because some people insist that would make my shit more readable, I just keep doing what I do — swearing like a longshoreman and rambling like my dad — because that’s what I do well, and enough people seem to like it.
Enough people is the key. If no one at all read my blog, I’d have some serious thinking to do about whether my writing achieves its purpose. But enough people read it that I know I’m doing what I set out to do: reaching my intended audience. And anyone outside my intended audience can suck it, quite frankly.
So there you go. Yeah, it’s pretty much three variations on the same basic concept, but it’s an important concept, sez me.
On with the tagging.
For the first three, I’m going to semi-cheat and tag people I went to grad school with, because I know they’ll have interesting takes on this question.
Gemellen went to school for poetry but can also write prose like a motherfucker, which only makes me hate her a little bit. Her blog is a lot of personal fragments and proto-poems, but she’s drawn an audience well beyond her friends because — following what shall henceforth be known as The Romeo Rule — even when it’s totally about her, it’s also about anyone who’s ever been sad and frustrated with no end in sight, to the point of being sick of themselves and the goddamned world and the sickness itself. Also, she is awesome, and she knows things.
Paula Cisewski is also a poet — and teacher and mother and punk rock girl, and the person who introduced me to Al. One of the reasons she can write such amazing poems is that she has an uncanny ability to distill great, huge insights down to about 5 words — which will either crack your shit up or make you gasp. Sometimes both. So I look forward to seeing what she has to say about powerful writing, ’cause I imagine she’ll say it in about 1/100 of the words I’ve used here, and it will be smarter. (Also, go buy her book.)
Screwsan, better known around here as “sumac,” is a sex advice columnist-cum-literary blogger-cum-personal blogger, and also a fiction writer who graduated before me, despite being much younger than me, which only makes me hate her a little bit. Lady’s got opinions. Which happen to be smart, funny, deliciously mean to the people who deserve it, and compassionate toward everyone else. Just the way I like my opinions.
Next, on to people I only know from the blogosphere. One or both Hoydens, consider yourselves tagged. Tigtog and Lauredhel are two of the fiercest smarty-pants, skeptics, and feminists in my feed reader. Even when I go on a temporary political blog fast for my sanity, I can’t resist checking what’s up at Hoyden about Town. Not just because I am constantly charmed by the Aussie slang, even.
Finally, of course I need to round things out (geddit?) with a fat blogger. Dear Everyone on the Fatosphere Feed: You deserve a roar, and you are most welcome to consider this yours. But since I’m supposed to tag 5 people (and am counting the Hoydens as 1), I’ll single somebody out.
Meowser, you’re it. No one in the Fatosphere makes me think, “That’s exactly what I would have said — only SO MUCH FUNNIER!” as frequently as you do. Tell us how you do it, woman.