Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Our goals as writers or readers

Reading Mary Montague Sikes' latest blog entry, "What Are Our Goals as Writers?" made me think about what my goals actually are, versus what most people think they are or should be. (LOL)

First, I want to talk about our goals as writers.

She mentions winning writing contests. Well, I've done that. I can do that. I won the Golden Rose award a couple of years ago with APRIL, MAYBE JUNE. (Their award is an actual gold-plated rose. My mother went crazy over it, and I put it on one of her bookshelves to be admired. It didn't come with a publishing contract or make anyone interested in the book, though.) I won prizes in the Robert Benchley essay contest a couple of times. (This year, they haven't yet announced the contest. ???) The way I got into Oak Tree Press was via winning the Dark Oak Mystery contest and getting NICE WORK published in 2011.

But I've noticed that contest winners aren't much appreciated. The St. Martin's Press contest would seem to be a major big deal, and you'd think winning one of their contests and publication would be a coup. However, I don't really see sales going big for those who win the contest, not since Donna Andrews was discovered (her books are that perfect blend of over-the-top funny and believable.) One recent winner has gone off to publish newer books with small presses, saying that she has more freedom there. I don't know whether winning an award of any kind does anything for your career. Getting your book made into a film or TV show, on the other hand . . . yes.

She also mentions financial success. That has always eluded me. I haven't made it a major goal, though. As I see it, those who attain financial success are usually the people who can schmooze and sell. If you are a born salesman, you can sell yourself, and the people will want your product. This sort of thing has never been my strength. I haven't had to rely on my writing to make a living so far, which is definitely a good thing.

What about readers? What are our goals as readers?

For many readers nowadays, it's ALL ABOUT PLOT. They don't mind wading through clunky prose (they have no ear for it, or don't care one way or the other? Don't know which) and aren't bothered by stereotypical flat characters. They're reading for WHAT HAPPENS, and if things aren't happening fast enough for them, the book hits the wall and they grab another (so many free downloads out there, why bother to push through all that thinking or feeling?) They were weaned on action movies, and they want to see things blow up and see people make snap decisions, whether or not the decisions are wrong.

But that's not STORY. Teresa Nielsen Hayden once said, "Plot is what happens, but story is a force of nature." I believe people need/use story to make sense of life, to understand what life wants from them and what they want from life. A story is a promise to the reader that they're going to learn something or have some sort of insight as a result of reading it. Otherwise, they close the book and say, "So what? What was all of that FOR?" They "got nothing out of it." It was "a waste of time that they can't get back." This is not what we're aiming for, I'm sure.

Story has always been a means of transmitting the culture down to the next generation(s). The Bible, Shakespeare, Milton, Dickens--the Great Books, if you will--have passed along the great ideas of Western culture over the centuries. A great story should give you some new insight into the human condition. It shouldn't feel hollow when you finish, as though you were waiting for the author to make his or her point but never got anything. You can write solely for entertainment and still have a point . . . I'm not saying that everything has to be Ponderous and Meaningful. But most people want to feel they've learned something from your book, if only that the Kelvin temperature scale goes down to absolute zero or that 73 is the perfect number (because it means "Best regards" to hams!)

It seems that the popular kids have decided they're going to write books. They never wanted to do this before, but now that it's a matter of typing into a word processor rather than feeding endless pages into a typewriter, they want to. EVERYONE is writing a book and putting it on the Kindle or going with a self-publishing deal. Writing books was always uncool before. It's kind of nice for it to be The Latest Thing, but I suspect that these same people tried to be rock stars and found they couldn't sing even WITH AutoTune, and turned to writing because they wrote in journals all through school and figured, "How hard could it be?" Some newcomers to writing are natural writers, of course, but I suspect that some just fell into it and have had lots of luck (and lots of friends who like them and therefore read their books). There are more books being published every minute these days than there were every YEAR in past decades. Lots of choices--good. Lots of slush--check. (LOL) Many books that leave you feeling hollow, as though "is that all there is?" were the question.

So why DO we bother to write books, when there is so much else out there that our stuff probably will come and go without being noticed?

My purpose in writing stories has always been to be heard--to reach those I would never otherwise reach with my voice or during my lifetime. I have always hoped that my book would be sitting on a shelf (or waiting for a download, wink) when someone who needs its message/philosophy/theme right then comes along and picks it up or downloads it to read. This person may be younger or older, in the future or in the present, but whoever the person is, he or she needs to hear what I have to say with this book, needs to be entertained with witty banter, needs to commiserate with the dilemmas and celebrate the happinesses of my characters. This person can experience vicariously a hot-air balloon ride, hear about someone's fairy godfather, work on perfecting the Schubert Moments Musical, and do whatever my characters do . . . it's a tour of my mind in my voice that no one else can give them, and I like to think it can enrich their lives and make them happy for a moment and then for several moments as they think on these issues and ideas I have brought to them.

That has always been my goal, and that is why I often resist making my books into action movie screenplays. I like to leave in the parts that made the books I have loved throughout my life into "keepers." I haven't thought much about temporal success, although my family and friends are quite fixated on the dollar; I do know that money is the way most people keep score, and the way they judge your work's quality, at least initially, so I guess I should at least TRY to do a popular book so my other books can have a chance at being checked out.

What if no one were keeping score? (Grin) If I serve art (Art) (whatever), that should be enough (but it probably isn't.)

So what are your goals? What is your purpose in writing stories?


  1. Shalanna, there are so many books out there now, and a lot may be quickly written and not well-edited. With so many $.99 e-books, you can download them and stop reading if you don't like what you find. It's a changing world for the author, and many are a different type writer from those we knew and loved in the past. Thanks for sharing your insightful thoughts!

    Mary Montague Sikes

  2. Great thought provoking post! I've been struggling with my goals for the last several months. My writing has been set aside while I moved and graduated a daughter from high school. This is the first week where my to-do list is very small and I don't know where to start. This helped. Thanks!

  3. This was one of the best blogs I've seen in a long while. You verbalized things I'd been thinking about. Basically what matters to readers.
    JL Greger

  4. My goal is to share my characters with others because I love them and spending time in their world is so much fun . With all the problems in our lives, once in a while, we all need to get away from our real life, read a book and spend a few hours in an imaginary place with fun people (and cats.) What better place than at a resort by a lake with a cat helping solve a cold case murder? (how could you think about your problems when you're 'there' and a cat is pointing out the clues to his inferior humans... you get it.)
    I never worried about making a lot of money. My goal is to get my book in print. The secondary goal would be to bring pleasure to others. That's all I ever really wanted to do. Thank you for your insightful post. Good job.