Yesterday, I posted about how Star Wars was originally, unapologetically, written and edited to please its author, George Lucas.
Which raised an interesting question. Who are authors supposed to write for? Are we to please ourselves or write for our audience, taking other people’s advice into consideration?
One of my favorite examples of “writing for others” comes from Little Women, when Jo March is trying to write with her audience in mind:
“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 everyone, she took everyone’s advice, and like the old man and his donkey in the fable suited nobody.
Her father liked the metaphysical streak which had unconsciously got into it, so that was allowed to remain though she had her doubts about it. Her mother thought that there was a trifle too much description. Out, therefore it came, and with it many necessary links in the story. Meg admired the tragedy, so Jo piled up the agony to suit her, while Amy objected to the fun, and, with the best intentions in life, Jo quenched the spritly scenes which relieved the somber character of the story. Then, to complicate the ruin, she cut it down one third, and confidingly sent the poor little romance, like a picked robin, out into the big, busy world to try its fate.
Well, it was printed, and she got three hundred dollars for it, likewise plenty of praise and blame, both so much greater than she expected that she was thrown into a state of bewilderment from which it took her some time to recover.
“You said, Mother, that criticism would help me. But how can it, when it’s so contradictory that I don’t know whether I’ve written a promising book or broken all the ten commandments?” cried poor Jo, turning over a heap of notices, the perusal of which filled her with pride and joy one minute, wrath and dismay the next. “This man says, ‘An exquisite book, full of truth, beauty, and earnestness.’ ‘All is sweet, pure, and healthy.'” continued the perplexed authoress. “The next, ‘The theory of the book is bad, full of morbid fancies, spiritualistic ideas, and unnatural characters.’ Now, as I had no theory of any kind, don’t believe in Spiritualism, and copied my characters from life, I don’t see how this critic can be right. Another says, ‘It’s one of the best American novels which has appeared for years.’ (I know better than that), and the next asserts that ‘Though it is original, and written with great force and feeling, it is a dangerous book.’ ‘Tisn’t! Some make fun of it, some overpraise, and nearly all insist that I had a deep theory to expound, when I only wrote it for the pleasure and the money. I wish I’d printed the whole or not at all, for I do hate to be so misjudged.”
Her family and friends administered comfort and commendation liberally. Yet it was a hard time for sensitive, high-spirited Jo, who meant so well and had apparently done so ill. But it did her good, for those whose opinion had real value gave her the criticism which is an author’s best education, and when the first soreness was over, she could laugh at her poor little book, yet believe in it still, and feel herself the wiser and stronger for the buffeting she had received.
What’s interesting is that “those whose opinion had real value” could theoretically include her family, who gave her such poor advice in the first place.
The problem with following others advice, too much, is that we all come to stories with our own preferences in mind. One reader wants more of this or less of that, and this includes beta readers, so an author must have an inner idea of the novel (or novels) that can act as a guide. Otherwise, you end up with the mish-mash that Jo had, that pleased no one at all.
I wouldn’t advocate pleasing oneself, entirely, because then you can end up with plot problems (like those found in Lucas’ Star Wars series) and not care. But you do have to have a feel for your own artwork and do what’s best for that work, even if it doesn’t make you happy.
Even if it means including characters you personally don’t like, and plots that are less than enjoyable. Even if it means gritting your teeth and writing a heart-wrenching scene that you deeply dislike.
Because our art is greater than our own personal tastes, and if we ever hope to write something that will please many people and last beyond our lifetimes, then we have to write something that is true, and good, and beautiful, even in sorrow and death and grief and violence. Something that transcends our tastes and tells the story of someone else’s life, in a deep and meaningful way, without skipping scenes just because they weren’t as fun or dramatic (depending on our tastes) as we’d prefer.
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
Photo by markgraf, Creative Commons