A Definition of Selling Out for Writers – Day 337

When I was younger, I was desperate not to sell out. All the other writers out there implored that we stay true to our vision, stand firm against any editor’s meddling to “improve” our work, and reject any suggestions from others.

“Right on,” my younger self said. “Fight the power.”

That conviction was put to the test fairly early on. I took a creative writing course in university, not because I thought I would become a wildly successful author if I did (I’d already been convinced at that point that the most important thing to do to become a writer was write, not study writing…) but because it was an easy credit, and it was something I liked doing.

However although I took away a lot more from it in some ways (how to separate myself from the work in order to take criticism — vitally important in my line of work), in some ways it was a complete waste of time.

One crucial point was when we handed the prof the first few pages of a short story we had to write to complete the second term. Back then, I was heavy into sci-fi, enjoyed reading it, and wanted to write it. I’d done my homework too — at that point (and probably still today) the sci-fi market seemed to be the easiest market to break into for new writers. There were several magazines actively accepting fiction, and even welcomed new writers to submit.

However my prof had other ideas. He cut down my story, not because of its content, but because it was sci-fi. He told me it was a hard genre to break into, and that I should stay away from it altogether. He strongly suggested I come up with another story idea. (In university parlance, of course, that meant “I don’t like this, so choose between a C if you continue or the possibility of a higher mark if you switch”…)

I was already connected to the story. I knew the characters, knew the story, knew what I wanted to say. I didn’t really want to change to something different. But I did, and ultimately I wrote a story that was torn to shreds by the workshop group.

And rightfully so — I’d sold out for a higher mark, and it showed.

Funny enough, I don’t remember what mark I ultimately got in that course, but I do remember that I came away bitter. And really, isn’t that one of the most important lessons for a budding writer to learn? (l0l)

I was reminded of this course while reading Switching From Literary To Genre Fiction by Kim Wright on Joanna Penn’s blog. I won’t break down the whole post here, but essentially it talks about switching from “literary” fiction to “genre” fiction, the pressures some writers feel from their publishers to do so, etc. (Or in my case, their profs…)

Kim lists four conditions, all of which must be met, in which switching genres is okay — in which, essentially, switching genres wouldn’t be considered “selling out”.

It’s funny, because for the longest time now I’ve done a complete flip, believing that there really is no such thing as selling out. I imagine this is because I’ve spent so much time writing things for other people. They want this and this and this changed — no problem. They get what they want.

The root of “selling out” in the minds of many young authors is that they believe too hard in the power of their own words. “I have written it this way,” the young writer might say mightly, “therefore this is the best way to say it, and a pox on all who disagree…” It is a hubris, that no editor should be able to (or is worthy enough to) touch their hallowed words. Did anyone edit the 10 Commandments? No. Why should their short stories be any different?

But when you regularly change your work to meet the needs (or whims) of other people, you quickly learn that (a) there is more than one way to write something, and (b) the writing can actually be improved through the suggestions of others.

The key really is to look at it from the work’s point of view. Whatever improves the work, whether it is your own idea or a suggestion from someone else, is ultimately a good thing to do. (And, I will argue, the writer’s imperative to include…)

So in that sense, there really is no such thing as selling out. Editors are there to help improve the work, and ultimately your success as a writer.

However I realized in reading Kim’s post that there is a point where you are selling out, and that’s when you agree to write something that your heart just isn’t into. If you hate Westerns, for example, and you write a Western because it will make you more money, that’s selling out.

Of course the irony is that is likely won’t make you more money because, as Kim points out, it will show in your writing. It won’t be a great book (or even a good one, in all likelihood…)

So my definition of selling out for writers: Attempting to write content in which you don’t truly believe for the sake of making money, satisfying the desires of others, or any other reason that breaks the emotional/spiritual/intellectual connection between you and the work.

Perhaps this definition can use some fine-tuning (any suggestions?) But I think it gets the point across.

In other news: I’ve been writing every day lately (but not blogging) and am progressing nicelyish. I definitely won’t meet my target completion date for the second draft, but I’m still working on it and loving it — and that’s the main thing.

Until next time.

~Graham

Novel Writing Totals

Today (Yesterday): 0.5 hours
Total: 163.5

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