Monday, April 7, 2014

My Numbered Days


According to Stephen King “If you intend to write as truthfully as you can, your days as a member of polite society are numbered.”  Stephen King, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft

On Writing is in the top two of my all time favorite books about writing. This quote kicked me a good one. Being on the outs with polite society is something I struggle with. (As if I have a social life in any part of society, but hypothetically I mean.) I write Action Adventure and I tend to give the muse free reign in order to give the story all the room it needs to live. That means I write what I write with the full knowledge that not everyone will get it or approve.

There’s a quote I picked up at writer conferences, and I have to paraphrase it because I can’t remember the exact wording, but it goes something like this:

Don't write to please everyone; if you do no one will like it. Write for yourself, and some people will like it and some won’t. ~ Who said this first? I couldn’t find the source.

Fact is the book hasn’t been written that everybody likes. At the last conference I attended, it was mentioned that if you try to sell your book by touting that everyone will like it, you have just lost all credibility. As a matter of fact the top selling books are:

1.    The Bible – Six Billion Sold
2.    Quotations of Chairman Mao – 900,000,000
3.    The American Spelling Book – Up to 100,000,000*

Which of those books do you have? I know many of you will own a copy of the first one. Okay then, would you say that everyone likes that book? The point is there is no book that everyone will like.

As a writer of course I want people to like my work, but I’m also fully aware that life doesn’t work like that. I write Action Adventure with a slight twist of fantasy—think time travel, immortality, mind reading, etc. I also like to inject wry humor into my writing. I tend to see humor in most situations. That doesn’t mean, however, that I won’t tackle painful or uncomfortable topics, including layering in a bit of inappropriate humor. Or interject a naughty word into dialogue, or a mildly racy scene if it is relevant to the story line, both things that can leave me on the outs in some circles.

Do I care? Yes. Do I care enough not to write a story that is on my heart? No.
Recently I read The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, and throughout the book I was touched and inspired by her candid honestly regarding her childhood. It certainly isn’t easy to bare your soul in any book, let alone in such a painful and honest memoir. It does make me wonder what constitutes the type of writing that knocks an author out of polite society? Some obvious answers came to mind.

1.    Taking a politically incorrect view of any topic? I’ll bet this is one. We seem to be currently in a world where you can lose your job for contributing financially to the wrong cause. And you will be judged by an army of Tweeters. Context/Personal Privacy are so Old School.

2.    Creating a worrisome or frightening character? If you write the next Hannibal Lecter, will your neighbors still ask you to babysit? Has Stephen King ever been asked to babysit? Hmmm. (Note to self…)

3.    Did E. L. James, who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey, get into trouble with her Mum?

4.    How about a memoir that will get you uninvited from all family events throughout eternity? Although after reading The Glass Castle, that’s not always a bad thing.

5.    When you plop down next to your Pastor/Spiritual Advisor at a function and he says, “I read your book,” how does that make you feel about how the assassin in the book handled moral dilemmas? Or does your mind go immediately to checking out a new church?

Does it seem a better option to write within a box, using popular guidelines? To attempt never to offend? Why not simply write defensively and cautiously? Ah, that is the question. My answer is because as a writer I feel an obligation to tell my stories in an honest, candid way. My question for you is twofold. How far will you go to stay within the boundaries of polite society? What is more important truth or comfort?

*Stat quoted from Russell Ash’s The Top Ten of Everything 2002


  1. Sticky topic. I can't say I'm brave enough (stupid enough) to write total honesty. Quite frankly, I don't want to know somethings or read about them in my fantasy. Nor do I want to write about baser things that don't advance the story. However, I hope to have the courage to write what needs to be said, the wisdom to censor my fingers when things will just inflame and not advance the plot, and grace to handle the backlash in either case. For example: I may describe the oozing pustules of a giant insect sting,or the nakedness of my characters when taken captive, but probably not going into the results of the naked bodies being pressed into cages, standing room only and what types of instincts kick in. The first two are important to the plot. The last may be happening in the background, but doesn't mean it's appropriate or meaningful to the story. These are things I've had to censor. This is a great discussion starter! I'm interested to hear other opinions.

  2. I don't think I censor myself all that much. I like to write what feels like is needed in the story. After all, if I go through several revisions and still have it there? Then it should be there - whatever it is.

    I think there are things that could get me into trouble with people who "know" me, because they might be 'shocked' by what I am capable of writing. But at most people I know won't read my books, I don't feel all too worried.

    It's not me, after all - that's the biggest problem. People who know me will see me on the pages, but I can't be held responsible for what characters do. I'm not going to censor them to make others happy.
    I'm going to write the book I want to read.

  3. LaD - Let's take a moment to ponder that line between bravery and stupidity. I'm quite certain we all see it from various aspects.

    I'd agree with you on what drives the plot forward is what is necessary. Of course perspective on propulsion is the heart of the issue.

  4. Kelsey - I'm in your cheering section. "I can't be held responsible for what characters do," is my new mantra. The thing I've noticed if I try to interfere in a story in its organic form, is it tends to dissipate. I can always come in later and tweak. Although it takes a lot of time to fill in plot holes if I tweak too much.

  5. I like to let the story flow and go where it wants. Since I write mostly fantasy and horror, certain edgier occurrences are bound to happen. People don't always speak in nice, decent sentences, though I don't put hard cursing in. Blood and guts are fair game if they drive the story where it needs to go. And, to me, humor is a must.

    My wife used to wonder how some of the stuff I have written came from my usually gentle mind, but she has kept me around for 21 years, so I don't foresee changing any time soon.

    Great Article.

  6. Thanks, Tom! It's good to have an understanding spouse, I always tell mine that the muse made me. ;)