Know what writers are particularly good at? Compromises.
Know what makes the difference between mediocre and extraordinary fiction? Compromises.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, about the rush and excitement of the writing community, especially now after NaNo, and about how many compromises writers make that end up dilluting their work and their vision, and melting them into the same pot with hundreds of thousands of others that have succumbed before them. If you think I’m exaggerating, or that it sounds all too gloomy and gothy, then just think about how many stories you could have written if you didn’t worry about clichés or trends, about how to publish them or whether your friends approve. Just think of how many writers don’t make it because they’re ground down into perpetual writer’s block out of fear and indecisiveness. Or think about your current work—wouldn’t it be better if you could just stop the world and its noise for as long as it takes, and write the most amazing story you ever dreamed of writing?
I believe we’re pressured by things that we should never allow to pressure us, and driven into compromises that diminish our creation.
Writing stories is an art as much as it is a craft. It’s a yin-yang thing, a symbiosis. But we separate the halves and focus only on the craft, expand and strengthen it and equip it with all sorts of gadgets and gimmicks and bells and whistles, while the art withers alone in the dark.
We compromise between the urge to be daring and bold and our fear of failure. We compromise between the demands of our particular story and good ol’ structures. We compromise between unorthodox, unforgettable characters and currently popular themes—and more often than not, we don’t even know we’re doing it. We’re impatient to finish what we start, because everyone else seems so far ahead of us, and because there’s still that ounce of doubt in our minds that says we can’t call ourselves writers until we’ve sold something or until others say we are accomplished. We hurry to finish the draft, to finish the rewrite, to finish this series, whatever, to just finish already and move on to greater things, and way too often we compromise quality and depth for a quick satisfaction. Finishing what we start is definitely crucial, but so is writing a story as great as our vision of it. The problem is we unlearn how to recognize great things the deeper we sink into a compromise mentality.
There are tools that work and tools that don’t, skills we need and stylistic choices which are more or less undebatable, and there’s grammar and genre demands and all that. But we should not forfeit art for the sake of craft, we should learn how to put craft in the service of art, and bring the yin-yang back together. All those “how-to”s that we learn as we develop our writing, they are tools and servants, and they should yield and bend and goddamn break if the story demands it.
Great fiction doesn’t come from compromises.
Great fiction isn’t constructed by cold calculation and engineered out of a pile of components. It isn’t improvised on the run and stuck to the backside of the bandwagon with chewing gum. It isn’t something we fall back on when our dreams don’t work. Great fiction is risky, freaking scary and uncomfortable, it’s quick to blossom and slow to ripen, it’s hard work and heart-breaking creation, and always more than the sum of our choices and waivers.
Even though the world is fast and loud and often closer than it should be, creating fiction happens in the dark, in the hot fusion between art and craft, between our vision and the thirst of the audience, and this place is one of symbiosis not compromise.