Guest Post: Indie Pride by Richard Milner
I recently attended a writer’s conference, which while prompting me to write this post has not done anything but solidify the opinions expressed within the post itself.
In a nutshell:
- There is no “right” way to write: period. There is only what’s best for enabling and supporting a given piece of work to thrive.
- It is not the purpose of a literary professional – e.g., editor, agent, publisher, etc. – to be anything more than the facilitator of a writer’s vision and voice. It is not the literary professional’s job to “fix” a writer’s work.
- Anybody who claims to be an absolute expert about a creative art, writing included, is lying out of their ass or extremely deluded.
Yes, we’re taking that tact with this post. Not necessarily combative, but aggressively in defense of writers’ rights to write whatever they please, however they please. That’s the point.
I owe my reaffirmation of belief to the writer’s conference I mentioned, which ran over several days. The conference was the usual combination of workshops, lectures, pitches, small publishers scouring for new authors, large publishers ignoring new authors, authors selling their books behind long tables, agents seeking professional validation from fellow agents, food in rectangular trays atop Sternos, plenty of fine linen, a cocktail bar with bored bartenders, dollops of pomp, and dashes of egotism, sycophancy, and desperation.
One segment of the conference involved all of the literary agents in attendance sitting in a panel in the front of all the attendees in an auditorium-sized room. As they sat there, the first pages of attendees’ writings were read aloud to everyone, by a designated reader (the idea was for the writer to remain anonymous).
It was the agent’s job to raise their hands at the exact sentence where they lost interest, for whatever reason. At that point, the reader would stop, the agents would critique some, cajole some, pontificate a bit, and they’d move onto the next work. Some of the works didn’t make it past the first paragraph, while others made it a whole half-page in. A few select made it to the end of the first page.
At one point, all the agents minus one raised their hands at a piece of writing. An agent who raised his hand asked the one who didn’t raise her hand, “Did you forget to raise your hand?” The agents laughed like a row of birds on a telephone wire, making an ostensible show of unsuccessfully suppressing their amusement. The crowd, full of would-be authors, literary fashionistas, and people who wanted something from someone else present, all laughed in turn.
I doubt the person whose work was being read laughed.
The agents at the conference, when attempting to articulate why they did or did not like something, cited rote talking points like, “clean sentence,” “not overwritten,” “drew me in,” – phrases so vague and nebulous as to conjure next to nothing in terms of concrete value or applicable writing strategies.
In fact, it’s directly because the statements are vague, that the target listener – an aspiring writer who believes him or herself to be in a state of need or not knowing – is supposed to assume such vague statements are due to some genius writing principles that they are simply not able to comprehend, but which the agents are clearly privy. The agents nod, say a phrase like, “clean sentence,” and aspiring writers nod thoughtfully in return because the writer-agent context dictates that subjective opinions become answers framed as fact, taken as gospel from a source of perceived authority. Funnily enough, the agents themselves often shrugged and mumbled “I don’t know; it just wasn’t my thing,” almost apologetically, as a carte blanche cover-up for an inarticulate non-insight. These are the gatekeepers, remember. The one-trick portal to the world of traditional publishing.
Again and again, their shows of cloying politeness quickly devolved into what lied at the heart: Bitchy, pompous snark that eerily mirrored schoolyard bullies mocking a classmate of below average intelligence. Even if there was one single iota of truth in their criticisms, the antagonism of their approach deflated any credence the criticisms might have, by revealing a petty underbelly happily engorged on the meager power it’s been given. *Nothing* condones such a disrespectful attitude towards the work of someone’s heart and mind.
And these are the individuals to whom a prospective writer is going to entrust his or her future? These are the “experts” and “professionals” to whom we’re supposed to hand over our career? These are the ones to whom we’re going to sacrifice our creative zeal? This is the tenor of the industry to whom we’re going to chase and hound and beg for a scrap of attention?
Somewhere in the afterlife, Hunter S. Thompson is howling at folks who believe “writing” means figuring out what other people want them to say.
Listen – once something is sold, it can be considered a commodity. I get that. Publishers need to sell books in order to stay alive. I also get that. Literary agents, such as the ones on the panel, are looking for work that can ride market trends, fit into established conventions, and appeal to as many people as possible. That’s business, by definition, and that’s the bedrock of their approach. If your goal, as a writer, is to “sell books” and “make money,” then go for it. (Although honestly, if you’re interested in making money, I’d recommend getting an MBA, going into finance, and sitting on your well-dressed ass for the next 30 years, staring at spreadsheets on your computer.)
But if you count yourself in the ranks of writers-as-artists, if you’re writing because you love and need it, or if you’re using the written word as a tool of personal growth and development, then banish the romantic allure of traditional publishing right now. Cut the cord and trust yourself. You. No one else. Believe in your own decision-making, your own intellect, and your own writing prowess. Fall firmly into one of two camps: “pop writing” versus “indie writing” – just like music – because that’s exactly what’s going on.
Want to write a run-on chain of consciousness? Do it. Want to write heavily textured writing, dripping with descriptive detail? Do it. Want to write every third word backwards, and mirror it on the opposite page, to form some kind of cryptograph that a character in your book has to solve? Do it. Want to write a book where no sentence is longer than 5 words? Do it. Want to write a book about ducks with lightning breath, who torment farmers and recount their tale to the narrator, who translates every “quack quack” into Victorian English? Then *fucking do it.* To hell with markets, genres, and the confines of academic prudishness. Never let the first step in writing be fear of losing someone’s attention in 2 seconds flat, fear of “saying too much,” or fear of not conforming to popular industry standards.
There is no “right way” to write. Kill that idea. Crucify it. Annihilate it. Crush it and incinerate it with joyfully blooming bursts of acid grenades that feed on oxygen and literary pomp. No one will praise your work, 5 or 10 years down the line, based on how well it conformed to bullshit like market trends. They might, however, praise your book for bucking those trends. Your book can either be fodder for the publication treadmill – just another mass market tourniquet for an exsanguinated industry – or it can be something that you, the writer, truly believes is special and indicative of who you are as an individual. Not to say that the two can’t co-exist, but… well, good luck.
Be proud to be indie. You’re in a good crowd: Not a crowd of people who “couldn’t make it” by traditional means, but a crowd who proudly stand by their own creation first, and who doggedly defend their right to write whatever they damn well please. Does this idea likely terrify well-established publishing houses? You bet. Hence the perpetuated myth of “the one, true writing style,” running side-by-side the self-proclaimed literary agent gatekeeper lie.
Instead: Think freely, write freely. If someone else digs it, great. If they don’t, whatever. So long as you’re happy with your own creation, and you know that you haven’t compromised what you love to do.
Stand tall, be proud. If you do, I’ll be there next to you.
I’m Richard Milner, and I’m an indie author.