Thursday, January 6, 2011

Entertainer or Artist?

My first editorial job was in my early 20s. I taught high school the year after I graduated from college, and the next year I managed the textbook department at the LSU Union bookstore. While at LSU, I also started writing little freelance articles for local publications, but I wanted to work in book publishing.

So I applied for a job with a small, local publishing company and was hired to be their Director of Editorial. (Say what?) I didn't know that stood for "whipping girl" for the editorial department. It wasn't a great job, but I didn't have a lot of options in my hometown.

I remember one day the owner of the company tore me to shreds (verbally) for using blue ink instead of black on the editorial schedule I gave him. We had not gone over the company's ink policy, but he wasn't really interested in that.

As I stood there listening to him insult me loudly, I did my little math problems in my head (that's a trick for killing the tears, girls). And when I was released, I held my breath all the way down the hall to the bathroom, which was blessedly empty, locked myself in a stall and bawled into a wad of toilet paper.

Man. I was so young.

Anyway, I didn't really know what I was doing when I started, but a few other employees--the senior editor and company VP in particular--were very kind to me. I was told later they all had bets on me not making it to the end of the month.

I learned fast as I usually do, and although there were times I didn't agree with what the owner wanted in our finished product, I knew who held the whip in that office.

A very young graphic designer was on my staff at one point, and one day I had to deliver the bad news to this person that the owner didn't care for how the pages looked, and s/he would have to change them all.

This designer proceeded to inform me that s/he was an artist and was hired for his/her artistic ability and had no intention of altering the pages in any way.

Needless to say, that person didn't last very long. But neither did I. Nine months later I'd landed a much happier job as an editor at LSU. But that's not the point of my post.

Before Christmas I had some posts about marketing and Twilight. I also reviewed a novel by Libba Bray. A few days later I read a review of a different Bray book, and the blogger made the note about how beautiful Bray's writing was, and how disappointed the blogger was that she didn't enjoy Bray's book more.

Currently I'm reading Shiver for the first time. I've noticed a few repetitive bits, there are several adverbs that probably could've been cut, and the dialogue at times tests the limits of believability... In other words, it's not perfectly written according to "The Rules" we hear constantly from the writing experts.

But I'm loving this book! Seriously. And unless it just completely falls apart, it's headed for my A pile.

Which brings me to my point. Is it more important to be an entertainer or an artist? Is it better to give the reader a great, difficult-to-put-down story or to follow The Rules of perfect writing?

I know. The answer is BOTH. But now I'm trying to think of who's done it--since I started paying attention, I mean. Is it possible to get so hung up on doing it "the right way" that you lose the Wow! in your storytelling?

My brain's just turning over these thoughts as I sit here watching it rain. Have a super weekend, reader friends. Til Monday~ <3


Jessica Bell said...

I guess it all just depends on one's tastes. I for one prefer character-driven plots, and poetic writing, especially when I'm writing because it inspires me. But I do also like a bit of trash Marian Keyes, which is JUST entertaining. It's like sitting down to watch a chick flick. I like both, and I don't think one book always has to make the best of both worlds. So, in my opinion, there is no 'right way'. I say tomarto, you say tomayto, right? :o)

PK HREZO said...

Here's the thing... the reading public wants a great story. Period. They're not concerned with adverbs and structure and the lot. Before I really started studying the craft I didn't even notice these things.
Now, of course, I pick them out all the time and can't keep from editing anything I read.So, yes, when the writing is not so polished it bothers me a little. But general readers will never even notice.
DOesn't mean as writers we shouldn't strive to be the best at our craft, but IMO it's all about the story and characters... if they dazzle me, I could careless how perfect the prose is.

Old Kitty said...

Hi!! Yay that you got out of that horrid job and into something nicer!!! I get so riled up when I read about work abuse cos I really don't think that work abuse should be accepted, tolerated or even encouraged!!

Ok nuff of my ranting! LOL!!

The thing about not getting the writing techniques right the first time is that they get pulled up more! I'm finding that with my writerly critique buddies. My reader buddies (those not wanting to be novelists!!) ignore all the technique and concentrate on the story (mainly positive!!). The thing is though I want to achieve both sets' approval. I don't know - I guess I find it hard to ignore that I can't get stuff right! These days (after lots of writing courses/reading how to write etc) I always, always notice the technical errors in books I read and they grate. Whether that's a good thing or not I don't know. All I know is that I wince! But if the story is so amazing, I forget all that eventually!

Take care

Unknown said...

When Chad worked at an ad agency he had similar stories about the graphic artists. Of course it was Chads job to infom the clients that their ideas were instantly shot down. Not fun.

I couldn't finish Shiver. It became too unbelieveable and hard to follow. I even tried the audio version.

DEZMOND said...

a whipping girl sounds very naughty although I know it isn't :))))

Have a nice weekend too, Leigh!

Tracy said...

If you write a compelling enough story, I'm willing to forgive a lot of the other stuff. If you don't write a compelling enough story, even perfect writing isn't going to hold my interest all the way through.

Books that do both wind up in my "A" pile!

Matthew MacNish said...

Did we already talk about Shiver? If not email me because I have some thoughts I won't share any other way.

Colene Murphy said...

You have done so much! Wow. And I really will use that math trick the next time I'm faced with something like that.

I'm TERRIFIED I'm going to lose myself in "doing it right" and following the rules. It is a big fear. I guess it is about balance, but no one teaches balance. lol

Summer Ross said...

You know Rules I have found tend to be there for the beginning. When a person learns how to do it right, then they can start manipulating those rules- because lets face it- they are always changing, even in the classroom for writers. So the both works really well. First learn how to do it right, then learn how to manipulate least that's my thoughts. :)

LTM said...

@PK--I think you're right. And I think for that reason, I tend to lean more toward being an "entertainer" than an "artist." Of course, I'm not sure how artistic I am anyway... :D

@Tracy--Me too. I can overlook a lot if I'm loving where we're going. That hasn't changed although I notice more now... ;o)

@Summer--So true! What's that thing about don't break the rules until you know them? Although didn't P. Roth or C. McCarthy--one of those guys--say something about "no rules" or something. Heck, I don't know! :D I do still try to follow them, though. Can't help myself...

Thanks guys! <3

Carolyn Abiad said...

I'm really intrigued by Matthew's comment :)

But seriously, it's the storyline that has to work first, then the RULES kick in. If you look at TWILIGHT and ignore the rules...I can see the adverbs fitting into what Bella might be thinking. When I read SAVVY, I had to get used to another "speak". If you read OUTLANDER, get used to Sasenach-talk. Each story is true to the characters in it.

Like the rest of you, I can't read a book with out making corrections in my head, but that's our handicap as writers I guess.

Lola Sharp said...

Both. Definitely both. (artist and entertainer)
You can break rules IF you have already mastered them and are breaking them for a reason.

Oh, and your old boss? He needs an ass whooping. He'll get his...he clearly has some bad juju.

Happy 2011, Leigh...and happy weekend. :)


Angie said...

That's a good question. I don't really have an answer except that you just have to write what feels right to you.

Hart Johnson said...

I think the story definitely TRUMPS. And you are right, that as writers we notice stuff I think the masses DON'T notice (which is sort of a relief). I admit that the WRITING of Twilight might have been ignored as bad, had the main character had a personality and I had a better love of romance as a genre. Even the 'out of left fielf vampire chase to Pheonix' might not have been notice for the deus ex machina penultimate action scene it was.

That said, I'd really like smart people to like my books. In fact I'd even like WRITERS to like my books... So I think you can break some rules (hell, ARTISTS break rules). I ALSO think a lot of this should be caught at the editorial level, but if the buying public doesn't care, the Publisher investment in this doesn't pay off, because you're right--there are a lot more Jo Schmos out there who aren't going to know the difference and are only making judgment on the story (and volume is where the money is)

Unknown said...

The study of editing and grammar has ruined my enjoyment of reading! I can't pick up a book without tearing it apart. I loved Pride and Prejudice until I started grammar. That being said, I don't like to read a book that hasn't been edited properly. But I'd rather read a great book with some grammatical errors than an exceedingly well written story that bores me to death.


Susan Kaye Quinn said...

For me, it's story all the way. I say that even though, as a writer, I notice all the nitpicky things so much more now. It really has ruined me for reading. But if you have a fantastic story, it doesn't matter.

Of course, if you can deliver the great story with beautiful words, I will love you even more.

p.s. I think there are far fewer people who will go along just for the words, than those who will go along just for the story.

Lydia Kang said...

Hmm. Lots to think about on your thoughtful post.
I am trying to find the balance between aristry and mechanics in my writing. It's fairly hard, and the pendulum often sways back and forth depending on my mood or what I've read recently.
BTW, I wonder if we've all had those bawling moments when we were younger and got yelled out. I can remember a few, *sniff*.

Natasha said...

After I started reading other people's books before they were published, I have started nitpicking every book I read. And I have picked up tiny stuff in books I could have sworn were perfect the first time I read them.

And I think your boss was also my first boss- he would drive me to tears over nothing important- now I realise he was just being a creep.

Kristi said...

Just found your blog and love this post! I too have been thinking about this alot lately!

I agree with you and the other commenters... before I started really writing, I never used to notice the little "rules" or "mistakes" in books. Now, I can't help but notice them, but if the story is good enough, it doesn't keep me from it.

Creepy Query Girl said...

Yes. With my third book, I tried to follow the rules of pacing, layout, etc... but if some copywriter came along and changed and tried to make the grammer in the dialogue (or even in the stream of conciencness parts) perfect, it would royally sap the life out of my book and I know it.

Vicki Rocho said...

I think if you want to make money, be an entertainer. If you want awards and acclaim, follow the rules.

I think I lean towards entertainment personally.

LTM said...

@Rayna--Would you say you learned a lot from that boss? I know I did... ;p And you're right. It's almost impossible to turn that internal editor off once she's been switched on! :D

@Kristi--Hooray! ;p And it's true. Great storytellers can get away with a lot. Just keep swimming~ <3

Stina said...

Oh, I loooove Vicki's answer. :D

There're times when something bugs me in a book, but now I know better than to duplicate it, thinking it's the correct way of doing things. Now I know the rules and how to break them.

RaShelle Workman said...

Hi Leigh - I'm going to always go for story over perfectly following the rules.

Beautiful art - something that can speak to our soul or touch our heart - that's more important than a rule. ;D

Lynda R Young as Elle Cardy said...

I definitely think that story is more important than the craft itself, but to have the two at a high level is true win. I know what you mean about Shiver too ;)