Signs

In college, there was a patch of lawn on campus surrounded by signs insisting the students keep off the grass. While walking to class one day with a friend of mine (majoring in accounting), he veered to the left, obeying the sign’s declaration of dominion. I went straight–through the grass. He stopped in a moment of uncertainty. We were late for class. The grass would cut out several minutes of walking time. And I showed not the slightest inclination of choosing his direction over mine.

With a grumbling sort of growl, he gave into peer pressure and scurried over the lawn to walk with me. “The sign says stay off the grass!” He flailed his arms around as though I’d failed to notice I was doing the exact opposite.

“I’m an artist,” I said. “I pen my own rules.” And with that, continued on my way to class.

Writers, dancers, artists, musicians–we’re kind of an arrogant lot–moody, temperamental, we expect things to go our way simply because we’re artists. We think outside the box and expect to be able to walk outside the box too. I was at a museum and found that my husband and I disagree on all sorts of things. He isn’t a huge fan of James Christensen. I am a rabid fan. I own several of his pieces and love them with my whole heart. He shrugs at my walls and tries to pretend I didn’t really put those pieces up. Different strokes (literally) for different folks.

I’ve heard some artists say when faced with someone who doesn’t like their work, “Don’t you people understand art?”

Well, maybe . . . maybe not. I know what I like. I know what kind of music I want to listen to, what kind of paintings I want to look at and hang in my house, what kind of books I like to read. If your art doesn’t fit with my tastes that doesn’t mean it isn’t art, but it doesn’t mean I have bad taste either. My husband doesn’t like half the paintings in our house. I’m not all that fond of the other half that he chose. It just means that our minds didn’t meet. Big deal, right?

It is a big deal if you’re an author looking to make a few dollars on your work–at least enough money to pay for your paper and ink.

I write for an audience. I totally get wanting to push boundaries and wanting to be unique, but as a writer for the commercial market, I always ask myself one vital question, “Who am I writing this for?” If my goal is to sell books, then I need to have an audience in mind. It sounds base and crass to consider peddling your art like that, but even the most brilliant artist needs to eat.

Commercialism really isn’t evil. What good is a really artsy book that no one wants to read?

Readers expect certain things from every genre. In romance, the guy MUST get the girl. In mystery, you MUST discover who the murderer is before he strikes that final time. Rules . . . even for the artist.

Who is your audience, and are you writing the best book you can for them? And if your audience is totally niche—that’s okay, but don’t be offended if you didn’t sell a zillion copies. Be glad you found your niche and that you have appreciation there. Do not be offended if someone outside your intended audience didn’t like it. It wasn’t written for them. My Not So Fairy Tale Life was not written for the national audience; it was written for the LDS people. Hazzardous Universe wasn’t written for adults; it was written for the middle grade audience.

I wrote a book for the national young adult audience a couple of years ago. It’s likely the best thing I’ve ever written, and though it received a ton of praise for the writing, ultimately all the publishers told my agent no thanks. It was discouraging.

Today, I realized that there may be elements to this book that would offend those of a different mind-set than my own. I ultimately took those publishers somewhere they didn’t want to go. Was it a bad place to go?

I don’t think so. It was innovative, and different from the mainstream. But it made them uncomfortable.

It gave me a new thought about signs like “stay off the grass.”

There may be a more profound message there.

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5 Responses to Signs

  1. Lisa Torcasso Downing says:

    Great post… Seriously, good advice. Except here’s a reminder: Plenty of artsy books sell just fine…provided their author understands the commercial side of their market (aka audience), which is your point. But that felt like a slap. Had a guy in my writing group want to begin co-writing w. me because he said I write the artsy stuff no one wants to read. Funny. I publish. He doesn’t. There’s a market and an audience for all types, but your over-arching message is great. You gotta know your audience and play for them. Kinda like priestcraft.

  2. Scott Parkin says:

    There’s an idea that artists *must* ignore the signs in order to be truly artistic, that the only proof of the artistic soul is rebellion against whatever the establishment is. That idea has never quite made sense to me.

    On its surface that seems fair, but ultimately if art is only expression against the commonly accepted, then it becomes a slave to someone else’s idea and not its own idea. In other words, merely being oppositional doesn’t make that expression particularly noteworthy; it’s the honest vision and argument that underlie it that make art (in my view).

    Which I think is part of what you’re saying, Julie. Know your audience and meet them (at least partially) on their own terms if you want to appeal. If your audience loves dense prose or allusive reference as much as you do, then your honest expression of art will most likely find and appeal to that audience (at the same time that it might turn off others).

    My only argument is that art takes many forms and that artistic quality is not best measured by its opposition to convention, but rather by the integrity of its own presentation.

    Good stuff. Thank you.

  3. Jonathan Langford says:

    Part of the problem is that writers (and publishers too) are often quite bad at predicting what will and won’t sell well. Tolkien’s publisher thought they would lose money on The Lord of the Rings. (Unwin pere gave Unwin fils permission to publish it anyway, saying it was okay to lose a thousand pounds publishing a work of genius.) So while market awareness is important, sometimes you have to go with what tells the story right–and then do your best to *find* that market.

    Personally, I’m left wondering about Julie’s “novel that got away.” Did you ever find a place for it? Have you considered self-publishing? Part of me wants to ask if I can read it–while the other part of me reminds me of how notoriously slow I am at looking at other people’s manuscripts…

    A final question: Do you think that writing that novel improved your writing in other ways? Was it worth doing for you, even though it hasn’t been published?

    • Julie Wright says:

      That novel was totally worth writing. And I think that it would sell in the market it was intended–and sell well. It is the publishers themselves that would be uncomfortable with it, not the audience. And I’d likely get some back lash from the media, and they would likely rip on my religion because they would blame my religion for coming to the point that I did. But really religion had nothing to do with it. I drew the logical conclusion in spite of its unpopularity with the people who control mainstream media.
      I definitely don’t regret writing the book. The practice for anything written is time well spent and I still think it’s a darn fine book. :)

  4. Moriah Jovan says:

    I won’t speak for Theric, but I’d sure like to read The Novel Collecting Dust.

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