Monday, April 29, 2013

I Write Because...What Really Matters

By Rob Killam

Amid the flurry of workshops, networking, eating, and socializing that went on at Pikes Peak Writers Conference 2013, Barry Eisler's keynote speech concerning the conflict between independent publishing and traditional publishing set off a firestorm that attendees are well aware of. It shortly got to the point that Pikes Peak Writers addressed the subject on Facebook, with a post on April 23rd:

Barry Eisler’s keynote speech at PPWC on April 20 regarding digital versus traditional publishing has ignited something of a firestorm on the net. We believe this conversation has value, and we hope that it can occur with respect for both sides. Whether writers elect to self-publish, to follow a traditional publishing model, or to create a hybrid of the two, the Pikes Peak Writers Conference remains a place for education and open exchange of ideas.

While I was not in the auditorium for Mr. Eisler's speech, I've become familiar with the varying opinions on what he had to say. In order to understand my take on it, you should also know that--about a hundred yards from where the controversy started (at least at the conference)--there was a poster board on an easel. At the top of that board was the phrase "I Write Because..." Attendees were given the opportunity to write down their reason(s) for writing on a piece of paper and tape it to that board. It was a fun idea, but it also showed me something about the "publishing controversy."

Among the reasons people had for writing were:

It's therapy. (That was mine.)

I can't not write.

The blank page will win if I don't.

There were other reasons people had, but one reason never made an appearance: "I want to be published." From what I understand, Jeffrey Deaver (one of the latest James Bond novelists) makes a distinction between people who want to write, and people who want to have written. The former is what I see most often at conference; they're the folks who love writing because they love the craft. The latter are what Donald Maass calls "status seekers" in his book, The Fire in Fiction. They're the kind of people who couldn't care less about actually writing, because they just want money and fame.

I daresay that writers would write even if there was never a penny to be made for it. Of course, the fact that someone is willing to pay us for it means that we can do something we love in order to "put bread on the table," as it were. As it should be, there are any number of ways to make money writing. Some ways are more honorable (read: honest) than others, and some are definitely more successful than others. Without going into the facts and figures and statistics of it (because math makes my brain hurt), I will borrow a note from Robert Frost's poem Fire and Ice, and say that both traditional and independent publication are good.

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. From what I've tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire. But if it had to perish twice, I think I know enough of hate to say that for destruction ice is also great and would suffice.

Of course, Mr. Frost was not referring to the debate between two forms of publication when he wrote Fire and Ice, but his point stands: the world could end through both fire and ice. Similarly, writers find publication through both independent and traditional publishing. Regardless of the manner in which we choose to publish, the core standard--that which determines our worth as a writer--remains unchanged. You cannot expect to succeed as a writer for the masses if you do not start with a good story. We have standards for what a good story is, and the parameters for that remain unchanged regardless of how we publish.

The reason for the unchanging standard is simple: we do not write for a publishing house, or for an independent publishing service. Those are venues to distribute our writing to those who will truly judge our work: the reading masses. If you are not a good writer as far as the masses are concerned, then your work will not be widely read (unless it's read for the curiosity of whether it's really that bad). There are some polarizing authors (Stephenie Meyer of the Twilight franchise comes to mind) whose work is both highly praised and highly criticized, but for all of the discussion concerning Meyer's work, it has to contain some talent to draw an audience.

I am not a fortune teller, but I can easily predict the outcome of any discussion on the debate Mr. Eisler inadvertently started. Those who approach from their various sides will remain largely unchanged, and--like so many theological disagreements--the debate will continue, with no one side being proved more beneficial (read: more "right") than the other. Pros and cons exist on either side, but just as writers have the choice of what to write, they have choices in how to be published. No one side is better than the other, despite how die-hards on either side might wish.

What matters most is that we as writers continue to write, not for the fame or money, but because writing is in hearts and minds, and thus the body must follow. We are compelled to write, not to be rich and famous, but because it's therapy, or because we can't not write, or because the blank page will otherwise win. Sure, there will be a time for all of us to decide when and how to publish, but we can't get there unless there's a story to be written. Regardless of your viewpoint on the debate, you're not going to get anywhere if you forget why it is you write in the first place.

About the Author: Rob Killam has been a freelance writer since 2009. He is currently living in Colorado Springs, where he is working on his debut novel, a Springs-based science fiction novel. (Photo by Jared Hagan)