Killer Year–The Class of 2007

The Writer’s Contract
February 12, 2007, 3:04 pm
Filed under: Patry Francis

No, I’m not talking about the one we sign with our publishers, the one that is negotiated by agents, vetted by attorneys and then presented to the author for a signature that is written in years of sweat, and tears of gratitude and wonder. The contract that we believe signals our arrival, though we soon learn that the place we’ve arrived at is only another gate. Now we must convince readers who are neither or mother, nor our best friend since fourth grade, that what we’ve written is worth their money–and even more significantly, their time.
That leads us to the second, and more important contract: the one we make with our readers. The contract is unspoken, but essential: You buy my book or read my story or article, and this is what I promise in return. For each writer, it is different.

I always cringe when writers say they write for themselves. To me, that’s a bit like saying you make love for yourself. Undoubtedly, that happens, too, but you don’t hear anyone touting it in the personal ads: SM looking to please no one but myself seeks attractive SFs. (Okay, it might be a subtext in some of them, but no one is going to come out and say it.)

Writers, on the other hand, often proclaim it as a badge of honor. I don’t care what critics or readers say because you see, I write for myself. How noble!

The worst part? I completely understand the impulse! Get battered with enough rejections, the dismissive review of a critic who just doesn’t “get” your book, and anyone’s likely to put up a wall. The problem is that the wall not only separates the writer from the pain of being misunderstood or rejected; it separates her from her own best writing: the work that is created to entertain, inspire and provoke thought.

My view, if you want to write for yourself, that’s terrific. Get yourself a diary like the little locked notebooks I carried around for years. I learned a lot through the mountains of journals I filled, most of which have been blessedly trashed. I learned about myself and what’s more, I learned about the craft of stringing words together. That’s what writing for yourself is all about, and there’s no question of its value.

However, once you ask real readers to invest in the product of your imagination, you’ve entered into a deal with them whether you admit it or not. The terms are harsh and merciless: Deliver or we’ll look for another author who will.

Does this mean that my book or anyone else’s will satisfy everyone? Absolutely not, and if I made that my aim, I’d be even crazier than I already am. But I do make a few promises to readers:

1. I think a good novel should be both entertaining and illuminating. I will do my best to write one.

2. Real life is often the tedious, boring stuff which Thoreau identified when he spoke of the “lives of quiet desperation.” It is also startling, dramatic, and “over the top”. I will do my best to eliminate the former from my prose, and emphasize the heightened experience that changes a character or a flesh and blood human being forever.

3. I believe that when people read fiction they want to FEEL and THINK and EXPERIENCE. I will do my best to create characters who fully engage the mind and heart.

4. The ultimate drama–both in life and in fiction whether classic or pulp–is the clash of good and evil. In my work, those forces will tangle powerfully. Evil will win many significant battles–just as it does in life, but it will not take the victory. Why? Because in my deepest beliefs and visions and hopes, it doesn’t. And what does a writer really have to share, if not her hope?

6 Comments so far
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Great post, Patry! I confess, I do write my first draft for myself–since I don’t use an outline, this draft is my “map”.

But I try my best to divorce my ego from the revision process and write the second draft with my target audience in mind. So far it works for me 🙂

Love your reader contract!

Comment by CJ Lyons

Another fascinating process discussion.
Thanks for sharing this… it’s good food for thought.

Comment by JT Ellison

CJ: I think we all write the book we want to read and we tell the story we’re compelled to tell, so in that sense we do write for ourselves. But at some point, whether it’s the first draft or the fifth, it has to move beyond that. Looking forward to hearing more about your upcoming novel!

JT: Thanks, sugar.

Comment by killeryear

I’d love to add something to this, but between the post and the responses, it’s all be said so well.

If I added anything to the discussion, it would be to say that I suppose there is a level I write for myself in that I write the stories I feel compelled to tell. That compulsion can be so deep and powerful that it can blind me to other considerations, which means I have any number of pieces that will probably never see the light of day. They’re not in a locking diary, but they might as well be.

I don’t regret them, though. I let myself write the stories I have to write, and then sort out the ones that keep the promises you list, Patry. The result is I rarely feel I don’t enjoy writing, but do enjoy having written, as the saying goes. I enjoy the writing itself, and the having written, and the thinking about writing, one and all.

Comment by Bill Cameron

I try to write the stories I want to read. I don’t know if that’s writing for myself or not, but when I read now–analytically–I decide what I like and don’t like about a book. And then I try to integrate that in my own books. Of course I want people to read me and enjoy my books and the book should be about the audience as well. But if I think like that while I write, I’m going to drown myself in expectations. That’s what I’m afraid of.

-Dave White

Comment by killeryear

Bill: I’m with you. I enjoy both parts of the process. Now that I’m in the “having written” stage, I find myself hugely nostalgic for the sitting in my room agonizing over every sentence stage.

Dave: I think it all comes down to what you said in your (excellent) last post: balance. I don’t want to drown myself in expectation, but I don’t want to entirely forget it either.

Comment by patry

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