Playing with the Universal

Something I’ve been thinking about lately is the nature of story ideas and which ones will sell, be successful, all that.  Which, I guess, considering how many ideas I’ve come up with lately (I’m journaling 5-10 of them almost every morning), is probably natural.

I don’t have anything solid pulled together yet, this is just notes.

  • I tend to notice this more in music than in writing, but there’s this thing where a creator suddenly becomes aware of the idea of a broad audience and writes an extremely popular work, which is then often labeled a sellout.  “I Gotta Feelin'” by the Black Eyed Peas came on the radio this morning, which is what reminded me of it.  But in the writing crowd, you see people like Scott Westerfeld, who wrote a bunch of SF before he hit the Uglies series.
  • The more popular something is, the “worse” it’s considered by a certain crowd, who seem absolutely assured that the less niche something is, the less value it has.  This doesn’t seem to have anything to do with craft as such.  This seems to go with the hipster “I liked XXX before they were popular” type of statement.  Is this something I should take into account as a writer?  Should I worry about “selling out”?  Not that I’m “in” in the first place…
  • Then again–and once again I find this easier to notice with music–there are creators who don’t ever seem to get less specific/more universal:  their style stays more or less the same (and is well-crafted), but the world seems to change to fit them.  Tool comes to mind.  Watching Jeff Vandermeer go up the charts on the Southern Reach trilogy is what made me think of this one.
  • A question that a lot of (newer) writers ask–they seem to revolve around it, like moths–is “Should I write to follow XXX trend?”  Sometimes it seems like what they’re really asking is “Should I sell out, and, if so, how?!?” And yet, year after year, what you see from agents and editors is, “Don’t be derivative, write your own stuff, stick to writing what you love.”  And yet plenty of people a) have success being extremely derivative, and b) fail miserably by writing what they love.
  • On a basic level, it seems like the simplest answer to the question “Should I write what I love or sell out in some fashion?” seems to be “If you take care of your audience, it doesn’t matter.”  This is harder than it looks, of course, or everyone would be doing it.  There are just so many moving parts to any type of creation.  You have to learn your tools, you have to learn to put them together.  You have to learn the craft from front to back, and that takes time.  And, once that comes naturally (!), you have to care about the audience.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to explain to writers that no, this particular thing they are so enamored of only works inside their heads and in fact will come across as a) unintelligible, b) unintentionally racist/sexist, and/or c) a complete waste of time.
  • “Universal” and “lowest common denominator” can seem very much the same.  Something that appeals to universal concerns also might appeal to the lowest common denominator, whatever that is.
  • Because humanity is specialized, there’s no real “universal” truth, other than the basic needs of life:  survival, reproduction, the greater good (species survival).  What are the most popular/bestslling genres in fiction?  Thrillers, romances, mysteries (which are all about defining the greater good), and Christian fiction.  What are the genres most usually looked down upon as the fiction of the masses, for people “with no taste”?
  • Erotica:  now there’s a question.  Both forbidden and craved, erotica at base is the pure sugar of fiction.  The opiate.  It hits pleasure centers but leaves very little behind other than a nervous system that becomes quickly acclimatized to quick hits of pleasure–unless you mix it with something else, whether a universal truth or some kind of more niche truth.
  • So, on the one hand, you can cater to the most common, most universal truths (and/or addictions) or you can find a niche that caters to more specific truths.  Some people will naturally gravitate toward more universal or more specific truths.
  • At a more advanced level of answering the question of “Should I write what I love or should I sell out?” there are actually two questions going on:  first, “Do you write well enough that you can focus on your audience?”, and second, “How much of a niche concern is what you love?”
  • If the answer to the first is no, then maybe it doesn’t matter what you write, because you’re not in it to take care of the audience and what they want anyway.  Not yet.
  • If the answer to the first is yes, then…it’s time to look at what you love.  If you truly love a niche, maybe you should write to that, and write so well that the world comes to you.
  • But if you find that the things you love are pretty widespread, then maybe you want to look at writing more universally rather than drilling down, or maybe writing universally in most aspects but drilling down on a couple that really matter to you (e.g., Stephen King–a pretty universal writer who loves rock music, Maine, etc.).
  • The thing is that you should not write to a truth you don’t believe in.  Don’t write a niche you don’t love, no matter how popular it is, because you’ll never truly be in it to take care of your audience.  And if you’re not in it to take care of your audience, go back to the beginning, because you’re not a good enough writer yet.  You will be, at best, a one-hit wonder–or a slave to a genre you hate.  But if what you love shifts–or if a genre shifts away from you–then by all means switch.
  • And, in the end, I’d be very careful with satire.  Because you could be making fun of some universal truth and get stuck with becoming a part of it.  I was trying to come up with satirical ideas the other day.  They were a) quite difficult, and b) very difficult to separate out from straightforward ideas that were emphatic to the point of hyperbole, once I looked at them later.
  • In the end, when questioning whether a creator has sold out, I think it comes down to whether they’re still doing what they love.
  • The difference between craft and art seems to come down to passion.  Maybe I’ve run myself into a logical rabbit hole, where of course once you define things the way I’ve defined them, then logically what’s left after you remove the question of craft from the equation is what you love, so therefore the difference between art and craft is what you love, another name for which is passion.  And yet it feels right.
  • A ton of works written by master creators haven’t survived through the years.  They’ve been enjoyed but haven’t endured except among those who are studying the craft or are just fond of an obscure, old-fashioned niche.  I’m reading Hard Case Crimes, for example.
  • Of the works that do survive, they (intuitively!) seem to have several things in common:  1) They are written by masters in service of their audience.  2) They touch on both universal truths and yet are honed in specific ways, in service to certain niches.  (Or are grounded in niches which have since become more universal.)  3) They are filled with a great love.  When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. It  is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.  All that is gold does not glitter,/ Not all those who wander are lost.  
  • It’ll be interesting to watch the fate of popular books that don’t have those three things in common. Books that appeal to the universal with an eye to a niche, with great passion, and with skill but without mastery (Twilight).  Books written by masters in service of their audience, that touch on universal truths but are honed in specific ways…and yet are written without passion (Patterson).  Books written by masters with passion, yet without an eye to universal truths (or sometimes, an audience) (Umberto Eco, post-Rose).  A hundred thousand minor books perfectly suited to their genre at the moment that try but don’t nail all three points (most books).  A hundred master writers who stick to their niche, come what may, and chance into a wider audience–or not (Gene Wolfe).

Where I’m at right now is that story ideas–to get back to the starting point–for me, since I’m not really a niche writer so much as I have general trends and a few common elements, should touch on the universal, yet be grounded in a niche.  I should keep working on craft (who shouldn’t?).  And I should keep an eye out, as I’m writing ideas, to make sure that I’m dealing with things that I love.

Simple stuff, but I suck at simple stuff.  Eight POV characters, one of which is really someone completely different, in a kids’ book, 25K or less?  No problem.  Figuring out what to write (that might sell well)?  Just shoot me.

Also, I think I’m just going to let go of brainstorming satire ideas.  I’m just not built for it.



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