I write to entertain people, not to bore them

Photo by mararie.

This week I was left a rather lengthy response to an older blog post about the average length of a novel. The comment was in reply to a comment I had made in response to one of the original readers of the blog post.

This new comment was longer than the blog post itself. And it basically boiled down to one writer, who has never been published, saying that fictional texts should be as long as it takes to tell the story at hand. The author of the comment was also worried about, “the notion that fiction must be one particular way, that there are rules that must be followed.”

Here’s the thing. If you’re trying to emulate James Joyce then you’re probably not writing with the intent of having lots of people pick up your text as something to gain enjoyment from. You’re the art for art’s sake kind of writer. You don’t really care about your audience – you just want to try and make your mark on the world.

Then you’ve got writers like me, and most of the people I know in real life who are writers, who write because they want to entertain people. And if some analogy winds its way into your text – it’s fine, it’s just your personal context reflecting in your work. You’re not worried about big ideas, you’re concerned with helping your audience explore a great, big, fat “what if?”.

Now, when it comes to popular culture it is kind of easy to quantify the kinds of story structure and tropes that most people like. That’s a part of mass culture.

It’s like knowing how much of each ingredient and what kinds you should or could include in making a box of chocolates. Obviously there is room for experimentation, but it’s going to be obvious what will put people off of eating that entire box of chocolates – too much sugar, or dog hairs.

Or, when you write to entertain people, it’s like being a comedian who takes stock of what works in their routines and adjusts accordingly.

At the same time, I personally have a degree of arrogance when it comes to audience perceptions of texts: I do feel that there are a lot of people out there that don’t understand how to tell a story. So, unless feedback involves solid technical reasons for why something I’ve written doesn’t work, then I’ll probably ignore it, and I’ll certainly ignore criticism if it’s based on not liking stuff due to cultural, social, religious or political persuasions.


5 thoughts on “I write to entertain people, not to bore them

  1. Hello again! I’m actually shocked that anyone bothered to read my comment, and I usually don’t post comments because it’s rare, in my experience, to have any kind of intelligent–or at least civil–discourse in internet posts, but the topic was one I found very intriguing, to say the least, and I said screw it, I’ll just say my piece.

    One thing I want to say first is that I’m not sure I was entirely clear in my comment that I wasn’t accusing you of being “obsessed” with word counts or anything that I was negatively associating with it, I wasn’t actually speaking about you at all, actually, as it was clear from the blog post that you have put a great deal of thought into the subject. Rather, I was referring to other creative writing students I’ve personally been around (and people I’ve interacted with on Absolute Write, a forum I no longer waste time visiting). I also want to be clear, just in case I before, that I was saying length is relative to the actual story being written–as opposed to Joyce or DFW or Pynchon, anyone who would take a Borges story (~3-4k words) and try to make it any longer would be a fool and would ruin its integrity.

    Now, in reference to this article, it’s entirely possible to write literarily ambitious story/book that is also highly entertaining. This depends on how we define “entertaining”, of course, and I would argue books like Ulysses and Gravity’s Rainbow are massively entertaining, though for their own reasons, and it would be disingenuous for me to fault anyone who feels otherwise. Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman series is quirky and really out there–and, most of all, fun!–but also HIGHLY literary, always in dialogue with other texts. As is Busiek’s Astro City, to stick with comics. I’ll say much of my work lands somewhere in the middle, where I try to tell science fictional and fantastical stories with big ideas that are also “what ifs”, and in varying kinds of experimental ways, ways that are meant to highlight the characters and their struggle with said ideas. This is not to say all, or any, of them are objectively successful in doing so, but, again, I am not chiefly concerned with writing for publication, but with attempting to write something I have not necessarily seen before. Should I eventually be published, that would only be icing on the cake. And I feel the same as you in regard to arrogance toward one’s work and ability and philosophy of writing–Faulkner did say a writer needs supreme vanity, that he/she must believe no one else is good enough to tell them what to do. This may be extreme to some people, but I think it’s a fun notion.

    Again, thanks for actually reading that comment. I read the blog post and felt an essay trying to burst out of me. I’ll definitely be keeping up with your work here.

    • M’kay. CCV – I read your previous comment, there were several things you said that I’d like to comment on.

      “I can’t imagine anyone intelligent enough to pursue writing seriously can also seriously expect to make money off of their work, ever.”

      This is complete nonsense, if you’re willing to combine art with businesslike sensibilities, but I don’t feel that that’s where you’re coming from. However, anyone who is intelligent enough to be able to write is also intelligent enough to take their skill and turn it into a career, or at least the stable foundation for an entire business. Novelists, copywriters, journalists, essayists – it’s actually easier to make money from your writing now than it ever has before. You may not be making money from your work, but other people are – it just depends on what your approach is and how skilled you are about getting your readership to lay down their cash for what you’re producing. So, in summary – I can’t imagine anyone intelligent enough to pursue writing seriously would ever expect not to make money.

      “That said, a story should be exactly as long or short as it needs. I’ve written manuscripts over 700,000 words long, and I’ve written stories as short as 900.”

      This is where you’re running into the territory of someone who doesn’t actually realise that their authorial voice is a little too high-and-mighty. By all means, split that manuscript into seven books, but anyone with common sense can tell you that a story can be as long as it needs to be without having to take place in a single text. A 700,000 word novel, going by the standard 250-words-per-page manuscript format, is *runs the numbers* 2800 pages long. The human brain is not going to be able to deal with a novel of that length. In fact, if you release it in paper form, I don’t think it’s actually possible for someone to hold that book without injuring themselves. A story so excessively long in a single burst is ambitious, and I’m not saying it’s not good – but it’s also not marketable.

      I think the issue of it not being marketable is what caused you to say that people who take writing seriously (which I think, to you, means “people who are me”) can’t expect an income from their work. No, they can’t, if they’re writing 2800-page novels, because they’ve fallen at the first hurdle – failing to realise that art does have an element of business to it. This is not the era of Orwell and the Auden Group, where all you needed was a trust fund, an idea, a degree and some spare time, where becoming a writer of some renown was a walk in the park even if your non-fiction was, well, actually fiction (Auden, you’re an idiot).

      However – does it suck that we can’t just write a 2800-page novel and have people enjoy it? Yes, it really goddamn well does, and I’m totally with you on that. It outright sucks that people can’t release content of abnormal length and have people enjoy it and accept it for what it is, whether it’s too long, or two short. Phillip K. Dick wrote books that were no longer than a NaNoWriMo submission, but try submitting a 50k-word manuscript meant for adults today and people will laugh at you. It’s frustrating. Luckily, ebooks are our shortcut – if you genuinely have written a 700k-word novel, format it and self-publish it, because at $2.99, that’s a hell of a lot of book for money, and if it’s good, you might find yourself making money off your work – but if that doesn’t appeal to your “serious writer” theory, feel free to send me the cash instead – I totally understand.

      So, to summarise – I think the issue I had with what you said was simply that you said “writing seriously” – because there are two very, very different interpretations of that. The first is yours, which means those who write for the art of it. The other is those who take writing seriously as a career. I’m a paid writer. With a salary. This is an extreme rarity, and I am most grateful for it, but it also taught me a lot about how to write for people, which is an unfortunate reality of the current publishing industry that we’re simply going to have to accept. But ebooks are your outlet, CCV, and I recommend you explore them – if that 2,800-page beast is well-written, it could be the making of you. The best of luck.

      • Again…I did not say it was impossible to make money from writing, nor did I say serious writers don’t. I said it was foolish to EXPECT to make money in any artform, which is what literature is, though I also said HOPING to make money was different. Every single professor and published writer I’ve spoken to, and they number more than a couple, has said flat out that one does not get into writing professionally to make money, that, should one actually find a way to earn some kind of a living off of it, they are the select few. So, yes, it IS a little naive to expect to make money from one’s artform, because that is what art is, but it is not naive to hope, and I believe all writers need to hope just to keep themselves in front of the keyboard and pecking away. I prefaced everything I said with this, and you admit it is a rarity to make a living off of the work you do. When I said “seriously”, I meant someone who actually thinks and cares about the words they chose to put down, not that someone who writes to entertain is not “serious”–I used a video game as an example of literary success not long after I mentioned William Gaddis, just to reiterate how open minded I am about this subject, and everything, really. However, I was speaking toward fiction writing specifically–not journalism, copywriting, and the like–because the original blog post was about about the length of novels, and the blogger stated she was working on a story collection. Yes, today’s market is rife with new and self-published books, but a vast majority of self-published authors publish the one book and never do so again, and this is largely due to the first book not selling (also, because the writer has to pay to get ink to paper, has a larger hand in distribution and advertisement, etc.) Of course, it’s not impossible, as your success proves, just certainly not the norm, as you say yourself. A major factor why so any books are seeing print these days is that certain niche markets are larger than ever, such as supernatural romance, YA, and so forth, which I do not write in or for. Again, publication is not my primary goal–the story must be sufficient to me, not necessarily others–though it would certainly be welcome. I did state that my being unpublished was, in part, due to my own lack of submission–I have sent out a total of three different stories, some of the smaller ones, and they were not taken (I missed the deadline for Conjunctions on one of them), and I sent them out a grand total of ONE TIME each. So, again, I have not tried nearly as hard as I could have thus far.

        To keep from being defined here by the fact that I’ve written a massive tome (which is technically one book in three acts)…any kind of massive length or experimentation that goes into a story must be there for a specific reason, not simply because it is what I want in it. I’ve written stories of ALL lengths, because each story is its own thing, what everything I said boils down to. I’ve written two books over 700k words, one nearly 500k, one 150k, one about 100k, several about 80k, and my most recent completed novel ms is 73k, along with novellas ranging from 20-30k, novelettes around 12k, and dozens of stories 5-8k, along with a dozen abandoned novels. I’m currently 13k words into a new novella, and I’m also planning an epic poem, though I will get back to rewrites on the second massive ms within the next couple months. So, yes, I’ve written monstrous, as-close-to-unpublishable-doorstops-as-one-can-get manuscripts, but they are only a portion of what I’ve done, and I have rewritten the first one three times, first word to last and trimming about 50k words in the process, over the course of the last ten years, until I deemed it readable, so it’s not as though I’m a clueless child/college student who plays at writing because I want to be the “artsy” type, I do have an idea–I’ve dedicated nearly 20 years to the development of that idea. Again, I qualified my previous comments by freely admitting what my limited qualifications are (student, unpublished writer, English tutor) and that I am not making myself out to be an authority, merely one opinionated writer–a redundant term–and one who wishes to contribute his own angle to the dialogue.

        Also, I understand ms page lengths are ~250 words, but, in the published format, especially in the tpb form, many books trend toward 400-500 per page, which would make the monsters about as long as they are in the word documents. I have a personal library of 2000+ books, and I can pick up any one at random and I’d wager I’d pick up ten that are closer to 500 before I found one at 250.

  2. As a comedian who edits their sets according to audience reaction I’d like to add that every comedian adds one or two jokes that no one has ever laughed at but they love. I think it’s about arriving at that balance between your ‘art’ and your ‘work’. I’ve always aimed for 80,000 when writing a novel as I was told by a publisher that that was standard, and also that a little leeway is fine. However, I think any word count depends entirely on the kind of book you’re writing. Readers of big fantasy epics are more tolerant of longer word counts than, say, chick-lit or anything mass market, which is when people go crazy over count! 🙂 I think I rest somewhere in the middle of this argument….

  3. Also, CCV, how long do you expect your epic to be? My book one is about 5000 words but I think book two is going to be shorter…. not sure yet though! 🙂 xx

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