The would-be author industry

When I studied for my Masters in Creative Writing years ago, there was a module called Paths to Publication. For this module I wrote an essay about the industry that had sprung up geared towards helping unpublished writers get published.  I looked at writing courses, like the MA I was on, mentoring services, manuscript editing services, how-to books, online forums and writing workshop groups.

The would-be author industry was big then. It’s even bigger now. Every day I’m bombarded with emails and notifications about some new resource or some new avenue of feedback. But there is a danger inherent in such a plethora of advice.

I recently came across a passage from Little Women, about the character, Jo’s, response to early criticism of her first novel:

So, with Spartan firmness, the young authoress laid her first-born on her table, and chopped it up as ruthlessly as any ogre. In the hope of pleasing every one, she took every one’s advice and, like the old man and his donkey in the fable, suited nobody.

If you don’t know the fable of the old man and his donkey, you might want to check it out. It’s a good one. It doesn’t end well for the donkey though.

My first novel, like Jo’s, is a dismembered creature, a coagulated mess, hacked to pieces to satisfy all the conflicting advice I received from writers, agents and editors. It simply doesn’t make sense any longer.

This is the great danger of availing yourself of too much feedback. The would-be author industry is supposed to help you improve your writing. Which is great. Which is all well and good. Except that this is predicated on the notion that there is an objective gold standard of writing. There isn’t. A huge amount boils down to taste.

There are two key, but apparently conflicting, skills a writer must learn: to judge when advice is sound and will improve the quality of their work and to judge when they should follow their own conviction and reject advice in favour of personal vision.

It may seem hypocritical for me to say this, seeing as I run my own manuscript editorial service. But, my professional opinion is just that: an opinion. The work and the final edit belong to the author.

Taste is often a slave to fashion. I’ve lately been enjoying reading some quiet, brilliant works of fiction by twentieth century authors such as Elizabeth Taylor, Elizabeth Bowen and Barbara Pym.

For a long time Pym went out of fashion because her novels of staid middle-class lives didn’t reflect the hip, sexual revolution vibe of the 1960s. Thankfully, after many years writing in the wilderness, she was later rediscovered and then her novels were treasured because she had remained true to herself.

So, as I get back to writing after a dry spell, I’m switching off all notifications of seminars and author talks and guru workshops and writing do’s and don’t’s and I’m just getting back down to me, the page and the donkey.

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2 Responses to The would-be author industry

  1. Linda says:

    So glad to see and hear you are back writing, Claudia. And I very much agree with your blog.
    I have also noted how much the “be a writer” industry has expanded in recent years, particularly, I feel, over the past 18 months.
    At this point, I have to declare my background: I teach Creative Writing classes and I have published a book on Amazon for beginners. I firmly believe that new writers can be guided in the art, showing them what has worked for other writers, plus the usual grammar, punctuation etc.
    But, when you are past the beginner’s stage, have been writing for years and have learned from courses, tutors, books and other writers, I feel it becomes very much down to YOU, the author. I’ve had similar experiences to you when my writing has been dissected by different people, many offering complete opposite words of advice: eg it should be written in the third person; no, I like the first, it works. You have too many points of view; I like all the different voices. You include too much “history”; I absolutely love all the historical details.
    What do you do? Listen to some, but not all, and then, which ones?
    I am now a little past retirement age, but I still like learning. I recently went on a one-day craft workshop which I absolutely loved. And, as you said, there are so many talks and courses on writing available nowadays, many free on the Internet. I’ve attended a few, but almost without exception, I find I’m listening to the same old instructions, rules, mantras, examples, suggestions and advice, some of which I disagree with!
    I’m not going to sign up to anymore just now. I’m hoping to start a new project soon and I shall just write. (That doesn’t mean I won’t plan: I am a plotter rather than a panster) I shall write and see where it takes me. When I’m ready, I may ask one person or several to read it for me. I hope they like it.

    • claudia says:

      Hi Linda, thanks for your comments. I completely agree that when people are setting out with their writing, it can be incredibly helpful to enrol on a course, or get some other form of guidance. For one thing, it can save time by pointing out to the writer the obvious pitfalls to avoid and to help them find where their strengths and weaknesses lie. But, once you’re more experienced, you do find yourself listening to the same old rules again and again. Then, as you say, it’s down to you. Conflicting advice is still really hard to handle, but you need sometimes to switch off and listen to yourself. Good luck with your new project – sounds exciting! x

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