Thursday, October 9, 2014

Art vs. Money: Writers Sound Off

It's time once again for the weekly roundtable discussion for the blog. Up this week: Writing for art vs. writing to sell. Art vs. Commerce. Creativity for creation's sake or creativity for the sake of making a living wage.

Have both sides been incited enough yet by that lead-in? Good. Let the discussion commence.


Is there a difference between writing for art and writing to sell? What is it (or what are they)?

Richard Lee Byers: I supposed that writing purely for art would mean that the writer was creating purely for his own enjoyment or to express a personal vision and was sublimely indifferent to the possibility of making any money off his work. Whereas writing purely to sell would mean that the writer only cared about money and was indifferent to self-expression and the possibility of creating something of real quality or lasting value.

Fan fiction writers and certain bloggers may represent that first hypothetical type of writer. But I have seldom if ever met a professional or aspiring professional fiction writer who could be fairly characterized as a pure example of the second. Even if we care a lot about the commercial potential of our work, we still take pride in our craftsmanship, and we still tell stories that interest us and allow us to on some level express things that matter to us. If we weren’t going to do that, we probably wouldn’t have gone into the profession in the first place.

Terri Smiles: I consider books written with the primary purpose of making money to contain less commentary on society or what it is to be human. That is not to say that books that include such "deeper" themes can't become commercial successes, but rather that the author had points to make or at least questions for the readers to think about, in addition to a romping story.

Marian Allan: There isn't NECESSARILY a difference. Shakespeare wrote for the market, after all. Writing for art is putting your heart and mind into it; writing to sell is hoping for the best.

Frank Fradella: There are, in my mind, three stages in being a writer. There's the hobbyist, who likes to write, who gets pleasing feedback from friends and family and who's entire "career" may never progress past Live Journal and an entry in a Poetry.com anthology. These are people who often say, "You know, I had an idea for a novel..." and never actually write it. If you are very, very lucky, this is the stage where Harlan Ellison slaps you across the face and tells you to go be a plumber instead AND YOU GO BE A PLUMBER INSTEAD.

Past that, there's the craft. This is where the words come out of you intentionally, with deliberation. Where the countless hours spent reading better writers is starting to rub off on you and you realize there's an honest-to-goodness craft at work here; that nothing happens by accident. This is the stage where you study and understand structure and character and motivation and develop your own style. You write, and you write a lot. Not all of it is very good. Much of it stinks. You greet the praise of friends and family with skepticism. It's nice, but you'd rather get that reaction from a respected peer.

Finally, the craft turns a corner and becomes a profession. You write stories that matter to you, but you write them in such a way that resonate with other people. You learn how to pitch and write queries and you get paying work that puts food on the table and gas in the tank. You now spend more time marketing your work than you do writing it. (This, in my mind, is where we separate the talented amateur from the true professional.)

Iscah: You may be a little more free to experiment with writing for arts sake and writing for sales sake. But writing to sell is also writing to communicate, to share a story, and there's a high degree of art to doing that well. Being intelligible doesn't make you less of an artist. You don't have to push the boundaries of them medium to write a good book, though there are certainly times you can do both.

Percival Constantine: I don't think the two are mutually exclusive. If you write a book or a story, why wouldn't you want to be compensated for your hard work? The way I would differentiate it is forcing yourself to write in a genre you don't like just because it's popular. As an example, I'm not a fan of erotica, so if I wrote in erotica just to make a quick buck, I think that would be a betrayal of the art side of things.

Corrina Lawson: In the initial stages, no, because the only guarantee you have when you write is to amuse/enjoy yourself. After a draft, it may needed to be tweaked or altered a bit for the market.

Lance Stahlberg: I confess I'm having trouble understanding the question. How can there be a distinction? So I guess the answer is "No." Not in my mind.

"Writing for Art" without any desire to sell is still writing.

"Writing to sell" cannot be done without also paying attention to the art or the craft. If you don't legitimately enjoy what you are writing, if you don't take care to enough to craft a well told story or put your own artistic voice into the work, you will not engage readers, and thus won't sell.

Even when you look at the most infamous example of godawful writing that sold a gazillion copies and got a movie deal in the mommy porn market, that started as &q uot;art" in the writer's mind. By all accounts, it was written as fanfiction, purely for enjoyment. It was the publisher who made it into a blockbuster through crazy marketing tactics. Trying to replicate that with the intent of becoming a commercial success is a stupid way to try to hit the lottery.

Lee Houston Jr.: Your questions are certainly intriguing, but I honestly don't know if I can answer them individually. So just give me a moment to hop up on my soap box and I'll tell you how I feel about writing. I write because I love to create. I have been an avid reader as far back as I can remember, and that (in part) has inspired me to tell my own tales.

Whether or not I'm successful is hard to say. People do read my work and (hopefully) want more.

I'm certainly not getting rich writing, and if that was my only goal, I may have given up a long time ago. I do want to reach a point where I can financially support myself writing, but I'm referring more to maintaining the basics of life like keeping a roof over my head and the bills paid than any desire for exotic vacations or a fancy house. Yet when it comes to writing, I'm doing what I love and love what I'm doing. So from that perspective, then I am definitely successful.

Jack Wallen: I think there is – very much. Why? Those that write to sell write what sells and that can become very calculated. Those that write for art, write to honor the craft and the word. That is not to say one cannot write what sells while still honoring your art, but most often writing to sell can quickly lead to selling out your art. It’s the same thing we see in the music industry (over and over again). Band write music that comes from their soul until they get a taste of success. At that point the temptation is very great to write for the audience with the most influence over the industry. How many times do you hear an author say something like “I could write romance, but...”. We do that because we know romance sells. I don’t do that because I don’t want to take time away from what I love – horror.

Why do writers tend to divide into camps and support one over the other? Aren't both needed?

Terri Smiles: I don't know why writer's divide themselves. I want people to read. ALL readers are good readers, no matter what their preference - and they writers to produce what they want to read.

Marian Allan: People are bilaterally symmetrical, aren't we? We love to divide things into this or that, these or those, yin and yang. So writers divide into pantsers and plotters, literary and commercial, artists and craftsmen. With writing, what you do and how you do it is actually somewhere on a continuum, and you might shift position depending on the project. Why do we choose up sides? Because it gives us something to argue about over beer.

Shelby Vick: Part of the problem here is, I feel, deciding the difference between writing for art and writing for money. The latter, I feel, is a goal most writers appreciate; who doesn't like money?  But the former suggests that 'creating' and 'style' would be the main objective. Or is that a description of the art of writing? Whatever it may be, I feel most writers write because they have the drive to do so. I have written since I learned to put a pencil to paper and form words. Many of the writers I know are the same, and have a compulsion to write. Some train that compulsion so they can actually sell what they write.

Jack Wallen: I think this is simple – writers that write to sell have decided it’s the only way to see their “brand” as a business. I am a full-time, stay at home writer. I do not treat this as a business. This is an art that happens to make me a living. From my perspective, the second I dishonor my craft and turn it into nothing more than a product to consumer I remote the art from the results. That would spell doom for my words and worlds.

I often wonder what my idol, Clive Barker, would have become had he treated his written words as a commodity. I can’t imagine the likes of Imajica would ever have been penned. That would be a travesty.

Richard Lee Byers: Personally, I’m not acquainted with many writers who intrinsically support one over the other since, as my previous answer implied, most working writers see this as kind of a false dichotomy to begin with.

Sometimes writers succumb to the temptation to take public potshots at others who are far more successful even though, in the detractor’s view, their work is not very good. But this happens because envy is the spiritual malady to which writers are most prone. That same critic will almost invariably hold other highly commercial writers in high esteem.

Iscah: I think writers tend to support things that reflect what they themselves do. I support both, but I admit to getting annoyed when writers think writing is all about their own expression and reader experience isn't a critical part of making something sellable or even enjoyable.

Percival Constantine: Both absolutely are needed. I think a lot of the division comes from the starving artist stereotype. There's this myth that if you write for money, you're betraying the artform and are a sell-out, which I think absolutely needs to be dispelled. If you're only writing for the sake of art and feel that money shouldn't be part of the equation, then why are you selling books in the first place as opposed to giving them away for free?

Corrina Lawson: I've no idea why writers or other creative types do this. Creative people need to eat. This is an art but it's also a job.

Frank Fradella: The conversation of "art vs. commerce" is an internal dialogue. It's a mental shift. It doesn't come from the audience. You can deviate from what's come before all you want, but you better be good enough to pull it off. That's the only reason why guys like Neil Gaiman and David Mack became such game changers in comics. It's not that you CAN'T go against the grain and bring new art into the world, but only a craftsman who's turned the corner and made it a profession can do it for a living.

Lance Stahlberg: I had no idea that they did. Anyone who thinks in terms of "Writing to sell" clearly does not get it.

Of course once you get into publishing your work, you start to think in terms of what market to target and how to reach them. But you write the story first, then you figure out how to get people to read it. Not the other way around. Even that's the wrong approach. You don't treat them separately at all. You do both concurrently.

Starting with the question "How can I sell a million copies to X market" before you&# 39;ve typed a word is a recipe for disaster. You make an interesting character. You pit them against an interesting conflict that follows a plot that you think people will enjoy. That's art. And that's marketing. Favoring one concept over the other is nonsense. To me, they are one in the same. If you focus too hard on appealing to readers, you are dooming yourself. It is impossible to please everyone. Don't bother. But if you think "to hell with what other people like" and write only what you like... well maybe you'll still have a commercial success on your hands without realizing it. More likely, it'll suck and won't sell. But you won't care. Because you're an arteest and above such things.

What advice do you have for writers pursuing a living wage in art?

Iscah: Nearly every career field allows for opportunities where artistic skills can enhance what you do. So don't think you have to be a full time artist to make art. Drawing, writing, dancing as a career is a labor of love, but it's still labor. What's fun for a few hours make not be fun 9 to 5. So I advise only attempting a career in the arts if it's something you passionately love doing. Otherwise pursue something more stable so you can continue to enjoy art as a hobby.

You could write whole books answering 3 and/or 4. The advice is more specific depending on what field of art you want to pursue. But quitting the day job is exactly what some people need to do... Or more accurately, making it your day job.

Percival Constantine: If your goal is to make a living wage, then the first thing you have to do is get rid of this imaginary divide between art and commerce. Stories are an artform, whether it's books, movies, TV, comics, games, whatever, and people pay money for them all the time, and your story is no different. Write the story, make it as good as you can, and then get out there and sell it, whether you're selling it to an agent, a publisher, a studio, or directly to your customers. Then repeat the process again. Also, learn about whatever industry you're trying to make a living in. If you have the attitude of "I'm an artist and don't want to be bothered with the commercial side of things," then your chances of making a living wage will drastically decrease. You can't separate yourself from the commercial side and expect to be successful.

Corrina Lawson: Money brings choices. Create a secondary skill that will support your creative work and then you can make a real choice between art and writing to sell. the eldest son wants to pursue screenwriting but is also interested in accounting. My advice: learn that, use it to bring in income so creative choices aren't based on "I need that $500 to buy groceries."

Lee Houston Jr.: Art wise, I try to make each work the best I humanly can before submitting it to its prospective publisher. Yet it may be years after I'm no longer on this planet before the public makes a final decision on whether or not my work deserves to be remembered throughout the course of time.

If you mean commercialism as marketing, I certainly want my readers to know when the next release of whatever I have created is available.

All the projects I have done so far have either been for the sheer joy of writing or the creative challenge involved. If given the opportunity, there are a few things I would love the chance to do (like reviving Ellery Queen for today's audience), but again, it's more for the writing/challenge than the money that might be involved.

Regardless of what perspective you look at writing from, create the best possible work you can, because it is quality that will attract and maintain your readership in the long run, not quantity. And of course, it doesn't hurt to love what you do and do what you love, regardless of what career your pursue.

Terri Smiles: If you are writing for the sake of art, marry well and don't give up the day job. I also believe there is a middle ground between art and commercial fiction which is what I pursue - "light," entertaining fiction that also explores what it is to be human and the deeper aspects of our lives. But I worked as a healthcare lawyer for many years to be able to write the way I want to write. Art does require sacrifice and I have the scars of years of servitude to show for it.

Marian Allan: All these questions have long and complex discussions rather than answers -- except the last two, which both have the same answer: Don't give up the day job.

Frank Fradella: The advice to "write what you know" is important in that the core emotional anchor of the story has to wring true. Even when you're being paid to write non-fiction. When I wrote and illustrated The Idiot's Guide to Drawing (with thanks to Tom Waltz), it was purely work for hire. It was the kind of work I'd never done before. But I approached that book with the core belief that everyone sucks at the beginning, and everyone can get better with a little advice and a lot of practice. That, I think, is what made that book successful.

Lance Stahlberg: Keep at it. Stay motivated to keep your butt in the chair and keep writing. Learn the craft. Finish your story. Then learn the business. If you have the stoma ch and money for self-publishing, cool. Otherwise learn how to write a good submission letter. Network with editors and/or don't give up on finding an agent who will treat you right.

Do what you love. But don't pin too much of your hopes on being able to quit your day job. That could well come in time, but not if you neglect the art. Don't lose sight of why you wanted to be a writer in the first place.

Jack Wallen: Write what your heart and soul begs you to write. I write a number of very different series. As I am finishing up one book, I follow what my soul wants to write next. I never know what that’ll be. The second you give over and write what you think will sell, you lose. Why? Because what is selling when you begin might well not be what’s selling when you’re ready to hit publish. Don’t follow the rule “Write what you know.” Instead... write what you love, what you have a passion for. In the end, it will come through in the words and the reader will enjoy it all the more.

Richard Lee Byers: Work steadily. Be flexible and open to whatever opportunities present themselves. Network. Follow guidelines and meet deadlines. Recognize that in today’s marketplace, even writers who are traditionally published must generally accept a fair amount of responsibility for promoting their work.

What advice do you have for writers pursuing art in a commercial culture?

Frank Fradella: You can be an artist all day long, but at the end of that day, if you don't treat your craft like a business, you are losing the field to those who do.

Richard Lee Byers: I’m not sure such writers need much advice. If you are genuinely indifferent to making any money from your work, then clearly, you couldn’t be alive at a better time. You can self-publish on the Internet without ever having to compromise your personal vision by considering the marketplace or seeking to accommodate a traditional publisher’s requirements.

Terri Smiles: If the primary goal for your writing is maximizing income, don't write for what's hot now, write for what's just starting to garner interest. It's hard to tell, but you'll be ahead of the curve.

Iscah: Understand the steadiest paychecks come from working on other people's projects. A graphic designer or journalist will see steadier income than a gallery artist or novelist. A novelist willing to ghost write or work with a franchise may reap more financial reward than one who insists on only writing in their own worlds. However financial rewards are not the only rewards available.

There's a crass side to commercialism, but usually truly great art or writing is much easier to sell and will endure much longer than shoddy work. It's all somewhat subjective and at the mercy of the market. But a career in the arts is often a test of endurance as much as anything else.

Jack Wallen: If you opt to go the commercial route, you have to spend a lot of time following trends. In fact, you can’t just follow trends, you have to predict trends. As I said, the second you start writing that book based on a current trend, by the time you finish that trend may be played out. You’ve got to be one step ahead of the game to really be successful. That takes a lot of energy and time, so you have to be willing to put in the extra effort before you begin writing that first word. You can be lazy and pay close attention to what Hollywood is releasing in the future, as that can help as a guide. For example, Gone Girl was just released and has been a serious success. Six months ago, you should have been on top of that and ready to release something in the same vein.

Percival Constantine: Depends on what is meant by pursuing art in a commercial culture. If you mean trying to create art without caring about making money, then that's simple—do whatever you want. Just go in with the understanding that if you don't learn about the commercial side of things, you probably shouldn't quit your day job.

Corrina Lawson: Know your core story. Know what changes you can live with and what you can't. And make sure if you sell your rights, you get something for them. Never sign a contract with an agent or intellectual property rights attorney to look it over.

Lance Stahlberg: Sorry, but that question does not compute.  If you write strictly for fun and only post for free to fanfic boards and whatnot with no interest in selling it... God love you. You don't need advice and probably don't want it. If you want your work to stand out in a competitive market, the answer is the same as #3 above.

Lee Houston Jr.: If you mean commercialism as marketing, I certainly want my readers to know when the next release of whatever I have created is available.

All the projects I have done so far have either been for the sheer joy of writing or the creative challenge involved. If given the opportunity, there are a few things I would love the chance to do (like reviving Ellery Queen for today's audience), but again, it's more for the writing/challenge than the money that might be involved.

Regardless of what perspective you look at writing from, create the best possible work you can, because it is quality that will attract and maintain your readership in the long run, not quantity. And of course, it doesn't hurt to love what you do and do what you love, regardless of what career your pursue.