Are We Settling For Less Than We Intend To?

Yin Yang

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.

 

14 Replies to “Are We Settling For Less Than We Intend To?”

  1. We’re impatient to finish what we start, because everyone else seems so far ahead of us, Not so much that but the impetus of other stories bubbling and shouting out ‘Me, Me, choose me. Me next!’ And yes, I agree with what you say about compromise. I’d also add a lack of disciplined aggression in querying. My sin is procrastination in that particular field

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  2. [i]We should learn how to put craft in the service of art.[/i]

    Never better said, Vero. You’re so right; it’s easy to focus too strongly on the rules and formulas, especially when you’re starting out, and especially when you see others seemingly finding success with paint-by-numbers stories. New writers see all of these books and discussions on craft and don’t realize that it’s only one side of the peanut, so to speak. That’s not to say that craft isn’t important, it’s just not the only thing that matters. The reason there aren’t many books on that [i]other[/i] side is because, well, it’s not as easy to nail down and put on paper, even for the veterans.

    It’s also the reason that most of the books that do touch on the art side of things are going to be hit or miss for most folks, getting into the mystical musey hoo-ha side of things that is different for every writer. Even when one of those “in-between” topics is touched on, it gets a little wavery. Take voice, for instance. Voice is equal parts craft and art, and for that reason almost every how-to out there stresses the importance of finding your voice. But very few of them actually tell you how to find that voice—because most of them don’t even know how they found theirs. They knew they needed it, struggled to find it (probably with little result), then woke up one day and realized they had it. That’s art for you! Art is a language. You have to discover and interpret it on your own, then use the tools you’ve learned to translate it for the page.

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      1. Ah goddammit, have the nanites escaped again? Did they attack you? Hey Sparky, get them nanotube nets out, we’re going bufferfly hunting!

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    1. Voice is incredibly important in writing, I would say it’s just as important as the story.

      It’s so important precisely because it can’t be taught and can’t be copied, it’s unique to each writer and it’s what distinguishes their fiction from all else.

      I must admit I gave up early in trying to “find my voice”, and focused on telling the story as good as I can. During this last year of drafting and worldbuilding, and especially of blogging (tried my hand in a few voices there too, like every good novice), I’ve come to notice a pattern, but I definitely don’t try to pin it down and force it. I feel it still needs to ripen a bit before I can fully exploit it. Does that make any sense? 🙂

      Thanks for the comment, James!

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  3. Thank you. That’s really all I can say, Thank you for showing me what was in my heart, bleeding out my ears and draining down my neck. No compromises. Balance, yes. Compromise can suck my big toe!

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    1. Ha ha, yeah, exactly! 😀 Why so much worry, it’s not like we have something to lose. But we have everything to gain from being bold, right? Right.

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  4. You could have written this directly to me. I think compromise is my middle name. I am so used to doing it in other areas of my life, I didn’t realize I was doing it with my writing as well. This post will be going on my bulletin board. Thanks for the wake up call.

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    1. Thanks for stopping by to comment, KJ. Glad the post resonated with you! 🙂

      Compromise is healthy in many areas of life (especially long-term relationships of any kind), but when it comes to creating fiction—to making something out of nothing and wanting it to stand on its own and be a force in itself—compromises more often than not are crippling.

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  5. This is very good and worth tweeting. Although ultimately some publisher or agent will require a work to be compromised to sell, your encouragement to create without those considerations is spot-on. Too often I have stared at the computer, paralyzed by the fear of creating something “marketable” instead of a true creation from my writing soul. Great encouragement.

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    1. Thanks, Julie! I’m glad you liked the post. 🙂

      Story preparation for publishing and exposing it to the world is something entirely different than story creation, and even though it’s ok to have an ideal reader in mind throughout the writing process, making “safe” choices instead of the right choices for the story is more damaging than helping.

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