I’ve realized that, just as we can’t judge a book by it’s cover—though we typically do take that greatly into consideration before touching it—we also can’t hold all novels to the same set of standards. What motivates one author to write may mean nothing to someone else, just as there are all kinds of readers and reasons to read. If we expect a certain kind of novel, however, and get something very different, we probably won’t enjoy it, and in the very least, we’ll judge it harshly.
It’s similar to how we react when genre fiction expectations aren’t met: if it’s science fiction, we expect certain topics or problems, a certain kind of world and characters, and unless our expectations are exceeded or improved upon, we’ll set the book down in disgust. But author motivations are far more subtle than your basic genre requirements, weaving into every novel a certain flavor that can be the difference between a good and bad reader reception.
Here are eight major reasons for writing a novel, each of which impact what an author says and how she says it.
- Artistry. Some authors write for “high art,” to make a classic work of fiction, a work of literature. This doesn’t mean it has to have a lot of symbolism (though it may), nor does it have to be complicated. It just means you are writing something you want people to read and reread. You avoid clichés, you make your character real, you study and work and labor over the novel until it’s as perfect as it can be. Most writers, if asked, would probably say this is why they write (even if they have other motivations, writing a good novel for the sake of its being a good novel just sounds good).
This is what we generally mean when we call something a “good book.” It is good, in the same way a good picture is good, or a good sculpture, or a good piece of music. Beautiful, complete, and real. It may or may not have a happy ending, but it will probably have believable characters, a sound plot, well-written sentences, and the lure of reality. It will have this memorable something about it that makes it impress us, makes it enjoyable, and makes it a grand experience to reread.
- Education. This isn’t always the best motive for writing a novel, since it can be hard to tell where facts end and fiction begins, but it can be done, and done well. Frequently, those who have education as their goal write for children, mixing the “lesson” in with the story, but this practice may be why so many people believe what they see in movies, later in their lives. They discovered they could believe what they read in the novels of their childhood, and they carry that into other stories, even when education is not longer the goal.
- Escape/Entertainment. This can be escape for the reader, or escape for the writer, but the goal for both is usually enjoyment. Often, the novel will be very different from the author’s current life, and the enjoyment is in the getting away, not the artistry. The focus is on excitement, adventure, and intrigue, and is generally driven more by plot than characters, giving the reader no opportunity to set the book down. A lot of “pulp” fiction would fall under this category, where the characters are heroic, the locations exotic, and the action fast-paced. (This isn’t to say that adventure, intrigue, and excitement can’t be in good books, but the flavor is going to be very different.)
- Eulogy/Dedication. The goal in this category is to honor the memory or life of a particular person, other than the author. Thus, the goal isn’t so much about the artistry of the piece as it is in venting the author’s feelings, reliving memories, and exploring what that person meant to him. Facts may be overlooked, as the goal isn’t education of the reader, but a particular view of the subject.
- Evangelism. This may or may not be religious, since evangelism could involve converting readers to a particular political party, scientific belief, or some other concern (like benevolence for the poor), but in works where evangelism is the writer’s focus, certain aspects of a “good book” will be overlooked in favor of the evangelistic goal. Characters will convert, often very quickly, and other characters will tend towards preaching at those who remain unconverted. Scenes will be left in that have nothing to do with the plot, just for their “message.”
Basically, when evangelism is the goal, the author uses the structure of a novel to conceal the mission of a sermon, and there is nothing wrong with that, so long as the author and reader both know what they’re getting into. Otherwise, readers who want a “good book” and get one with evangelism and propaganda (even in its most innocent form) are going to be unhappy, just as readers who want pulp fiction and get a literary novel are upset.
- Money. Sometimes, an author writes something just because it sells; she isn’t seeking high art and doesn’t care much about the message of the book. It’s all done in the hopes of earning a paycheck—and this is okay.
Writing is a business, too, not just an art, and such a novel, if mixed with a goal to entertain the readers, will probably be well received. If the goal is only to make money, though, it may not find a market, because readers don’t like paying for nothing. They want to get something in exchange, and if your book is just a rehash of what’s sold before, it probably won’t find its way off the shelves.
- Themselves. Sometimes, authors write just to please themselves. They put what they want into their story, ignoring any convention, any reader expectation, and anyone else’s enjoyment but their own. You may be writing a novel just to prove that you can do it, or you may be trying to get the story down, just so you can enjoy peace again, the story burning through your mind every waking moment and keeping you from sleep.
And again, this is not a bad thing, but if the goal is pleasing yourself, and no one else, you may end up serving a market of one.
- Therapy. Some stories are written to help people overcome the dreadful things that have happened, either in the author’s own life or in the lives of the readers. This is what seems to happen when a writer decides to write about the domestic abuse, the loss of a child or parent, or some other traumatic event. The focus is on the sad event itself and how to overcome it, how to move on, how to cope with it and explore one’s emotions surrounding it…and not artistry. This can be very beneficial to some readers, as they relate to the characters and recognize their feelings, mirrored in the lives of the characters.
These kinds of novels become a kind of companion to their readers though grief and the struggle of life, and this is certainly a noble goal. But, again, it isn’t what motivates a “good book,” or an “entertaining book” and it may not be eagerly received by some readers. As long as you realize this, going in, you shouldn’t be disappointed with your reception.
As a writer, it really doesn’t matter which reason motivates you to write your novel. All of them are valid, and all of them are well received by a certain kind of reader (or, as is sometimes the case, readers are forgiving enough to overlook what they consider shortcomings: the disparities between the kinds of book they prefer and your novel).
But as you write, you should clarify your reason for writing. Otherwise, the end product, and the reception you receive—in the form of royalty paychecks and book reviews—may leave you dissatisfied and discouraged, thinking you can’t write when you can. You may just have to write for a different reason.
Copyright 2014 Andrea Lundgren