To Thine Own Writing Be True

It’s been an interesting experience getting The Mushroom Shift ready for publication.

I mean, here is a novel I wrote almost 25 years ago, and as I’m reading it, and as I’m having my Kindle read it to me as part of the proofreading process, I’m discovering something about it that I hadn’t expected.

It’s a really good book.

Yeah, authors are supposed to say that sort of thing. But I don’t say that about many of my others – not A Death of Honor or The Company Man, or the three books of the Angel’s Luck trilogy. While I can chat them up to interested readers, I don’t think they’re particularly good, largely because I hadn’t yet hit that mystical One Million Words mark.1 Of my published novels, Ferman’s Devils/Boddekker’s Demons is the first one I can page through without cringing, largely because (I believe) by that point I’d actually Gotten Good.

Yet here is a novel that was my third (written after Desperate Measures and Honor2), before I had Gotten Good – but I can mostly read/listen to it without wincing. Plus there are moments in the book that make me marvel at how good it really is.

Granted, there’s one scene in The Mushroom Shift that I have long considered one of my best pieces of writing ever – but one scene does not a great book make. Mushroom I think is a great book, in spite of the fact that my writing style hadn’t completely evolved. Why?

Well, I’ve been thinking it over, and I believe I might have the answer.

The Mushroom Shift was written for love. It was written for the sheer joy if sitting down and telling a story. It was written because the story was coming out of me, and not for any sort of commercial consideration.

The others from that period were, well, written to try and make money.

Ditto the story about Ferman and Boddekker, which was something I wanted to write for a long time, and had a great time doing so when I finally did it.

Ditto again for Drawing Down the Moon, in which I defied my then-agent’s advice and sat down and wrote it because it was a story I wanted to tell. Well, DDtM is also a great book because I think I have officially Gotten Good now, but you see the pattern forming.

There’s something to be said for tossing commercial considerations out the window and writing for the love of the process.

Need more proof?

Open up your web browser, point it at Amazon dot com, and look up the Stephanie Plum series of novels by Janet Evanovich. Check out the reviews of the early series; One for the Money, Two for the Dough, Three to Get Deadly

People love ’em.

Now check out the reviews of books Fourteen, Fifteen, Sixteen, Seventeen. Evanovich’s readers are turning on her, accusing the writer of making her books dull, boring and repetitive – basically phoning it in for the score.3 One reviewer even accuses her of milking the series after allegedly reading an interview in which Evanovich advocated doing exactly that.

I’m guessing that the one thing on the minds of all of Evanovich’s disgruntled readers right now is, “Where is the love?”

Don’t get me wrong – there’s nothing bad about writing for money. But there seems to be a strange phenomenon that occurs when you do that. You start keeping commercial considerations in mind, and perhaps you start getting a little shy about letting loose for fear of offputting your readers. And pretty soon you’re doing that thing of stamping the novels out using a cookie cutter formula.

I suppose it’s nice work if you can get it.

But so much more satisfying… and a much richer legacy you will leave… if you be truthful with yourself as a writer, if you push yourself out of the box, and simply write for the sheer joy of creating, of telling a story you want to tell rather than shooting for the lowest common denominator.

Who knows? Your fans might even like it, too.

  1. Or that new iteration of skill honing, the Ten Thousand Hour mark.
  2. That’s right – those early novels weren’t published in the order in which they were written.
  3. And actually, in the interest of full self-disclosure, I found her books dull, boring and repetitive after just two. Along with highly irritating. But she makes more money writing than I do, so you can’t argue with success.
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3 responses to “To Thine Own Writing Be True

  1. Spoken like a true artist, Joe. One of the standards I use against my own work is the early Looney Tunes stuff, when the Warner Brothers bullpen was making cartoons that made themselves laugh. There is my freelance work and day job where I produce for a client, to the best of my ability to fit within the parameters of what is commercial for them. But then there is my art, which isn’t done for anyone except me. The trick is to have the patronage who love your art, and that just means the right market. Michelangelo found his.

    And here I always thought Boddeker et al were my favorites just because of my taste. NOW you tell me, they were when you hit your stride. DDtM is on my to-read list, and now Mushroom Shift as well. Especially looking forward to it!

    • Absolutely agree with you on Looney Tunes. Creativity for creativity’s sake, without overthinking it or political agenda (well, except for that “Let’s defeat the Axis stuff from ’41 to ’45). Maybe the key to being a great artist isn’t the raw talent, but the sense that doing what pleases yourself will also please other people, and turning yourself over to your imagination. I think that results in that joyousness you see in work done that way, along with that truthfulness. There. If I’d said that the first time out this blog entry would’ve been much shorter.

      I’ve always tried to do two things with my novels – I’ve tried to write books I would have wanted to read if I was haunting the bookshelves at a library or store (or, now, online); and I’ve always had a purpose in mind to stretch myself as a writer with each book. Hmmm, time to write about that latter item next.

      Also need to say that I’ve really enjoyed this conversation on creativity that we’ve had going over the last few posts. I heard this rumor you work in the same neighborhood I do. If so, we should continue this in person, over lunch.

  2. I’ve read some Evanovich novels. She is clever and funny. However, I do agree with you. After the first couple of novels she does become a bit repetitious.

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