I'm thinking about this because I just did my short story Nebula recs for the year (yeah, yeah, I put it off as long as possible. I don't actually expect the stories I liked to make the ballot, although I kind of hope geekshow's "The Disappearance of James H____" does, if only because if that did, and "Botticelli" did, which it won't, there would be two thinly disguised slash stories on the Nebula ballot, and that would amuse the heck out of me.)
Anyway, self-absorbed digressions aside, the interesting (to me) point for pondering was that, as I learn more about my craft, I become fussier about the fiction I read for pleasure, and far more likely to set books aside and walk away when once I would have plowed through them if I made it to the halfway point. But, counterintuitively, I become more forgiving of failure.
Heh. And, looking at that paragraph, I see I need to explain.
And I want to talk about failure some.
See, here's the thing. Writing is hard.
Well, no it's not. That's a lie. Writing formula fiction, once you know how to do it, is relatively easy. Formula fiction follows a formula, you see, as the name would indicate--and once you know the recipe you can bake that cake any time you please. It's easy. Rising action, climax, resolution, denouement. Repeat with different names and setting. Find something that will serve as a hook to a reader's interest--clever mental puzzles, a breezy style, a couple of engrossing characters, some banter, books that can be read on airplanes without too much trouble, and really, that's all the marketplace demands.
You rarely read an airport thriller that's a complete failure, much like you rarely see a buddy-pic blow-stuff-up movie that falls apart at the end.
And that's because this stuff is easy. It's like turning a cartwheel. Once you figure out the knack, you can more or less do it every time, and your success in the marketplace will rely on whether or not people find your work entertaining.
And here's a dirty secret. You bet I'm out here turning cartwheels. I know how to put that three-act structure plot together. Most people in Western society do, frankly, because it's the storytelling model that's ingrained in our DNA from the very first fairy tale we hear.
Stories, in our culture, have a beginning, a middle, and an end. They evolve to a punchline, and then they gentle the reader back down again. And I think writing those kind of stories is a useful bit of craft for a writer to learn, and you will never need to learn to do anything else to write commercial fiction.
But there's this other thing that we call literature. Or literary merit. And that's hard. And by that, I don't mean pseudo-literary masturbation, either, by which I mean that empty shit with a lot of pretty words (or, in some cases, a lot of ugly shocking words) and vague thrashing that doesn't support a core of meaning. Because that stuff isn't any better than straightforward formula storytelling. Worse, possibly, because it's fucking pretentious, in addition to being empty.
And quit looking at me like meaning is a dirty word. It's not.
So, we presume for a moment that there is such a thing as fiction with literary merit, which isn't twaddle. And that, when it isn't twaddle, it's harder to write than commercial fiction is. And that, all things being equal, your average Joe is more likely to blow the dismount on hard things than on easy things.
The thing about at least the attempt of literary merit (and I'm only talking about the attempt, here, because I don't get to claim the achievement for myself) is that it's also a hell of a lot more fun than just pumping out slick fiction. For me, at least.
So yeah, I turn the cartwheels. I graft thriller and mystery and romance plots into everything I write that's longer than about twenty pages (short stories, I get to do whatever I want, thank you), and try to braid them together in new and interesting ways. I try to turn really good cartwheels. Cartwheels, in fact, good enough that if you came for the cartwheels, that may be all you're going to see.
This doesn't always work, of course; witness the number of Amazon reviews I get bitching about the amount of character development in my books. ;-) But I still keep slapping that wallpaper up there, because they sell my books in supermarkets, and that three-act structure and catharsis is what most casual readers are looking for.
...and I do indeed seem to be reaching some of them. (Google Alerts is good. Every so often I catch an online discussion about my work, and get to eavesdrop on it sneakily, and the people who like it (and frankly, it's only the people who like it that I care about, in my professional persona, because they are the ones who will buy the next one) seem divided into two camps--the "this is not deep, but it is fun," group, and the "this Bear is a sneaky Bear, and she has things to say beyond Whee! Stuff blows up!" group. I love them both. They both give me their money.)
On the other hand... I'm not really interested in writing books that aren't challenging--for me and for the reader--and that don't have an argument with themselves about something or another. hernewshoes pointed out that all my books are about ethical dilemmas, and you know, she's mostly right. One-Eyed Jack isn't, and neither is The Stratford Man, really, but the Jenny books are, and Carnival is, and so is Blood and Iron. (Yeah, this is self-absorbed, but it's my blog, and it's December 30th. Get a helmet. ;-] )
Now, yanno, it's certainly possible that I'm a hack with delusions of grandeur, yadda yadda. You can consider that as read. And the fact of the matter is, I do indeed fall flat on my face fairly often as a writer. Because I can turn a cartwheel no sweat, but the uneven bars? Man, there's a jillion ways to wipe out.
Which is why I grow forgiving of failure as I grow in craft as a writer, as long as it's ambitious failure. Because I firmly believe that if you're not falling off, you may not be riding hard enough. And it's easy to succeed if you play it safe. And yanno, my failures are right out there on the page for the world to see, as well.
So that's my New Year's Resolution. To be more forgiving of ambitious failures than complacent successes.
And to wipe out like a son of a bitch, in public, if that's what it takes.