Rethinking Your Novel: The Quest for Art vs. The Quest for a Publisher

The sixth in a series of posts on what elevates a story to greatness.

If it’s commercial, can it still be art

And if it’s art, are there really rules and standards in play? And whose are they?

Or are we free to create anything we desire outside of and separate from those expectations?

The answer to the first question – an unqualified yes.   But it is more likely to be artful than art. 

Or at least, perhaps it should be.

Understanding the difference is critical.

It may be art, but that intention doesn’t remotely make it commercial.  At the heart of the definition of commercial is the ability to mass produce and sell it, and that original Monet hanging in the gallery downtown isn’t for sale.

The prints are… but then, when that’s the case, suddenly it’s commercial.

On one level that’s just semantics… on another, not so much.  Especially with writing.  Because there are no galleries for a wildly artsy-fartsy manuscript that nobody wants to duplicate and sell.

Which means if you’re writing with the pure and exclusive intention to create art, with nothing that smacks of a commercial agenda – nothing wrong with that, by the way – then it’s not semantics after all.  It’s just a choice you’ve made, bringing consequences you must accept.

Artful is always good, regardless of the level of your commercial intentions.  And of course, art is always worthwhile. 

Question is… which is the means, and which is the desired outcome?  

The Underpinnings of Art

Even in venues that unquestionably reside in the realm of art – painting, sculpture, music – there are indeed structures and principles to consider, even rules and expectations to observe.  The further you depart from them – paintings that appear, say, on the cadavers of dead farm animals – the less commercial you become.

So think long and hard about your ultimate objective.  Then maybe rethink your strategy. 

Are you creating art, or are you writing commercially, albiet with an artful sensibility?  What and where is the difference?

If you’re a writer, save the pure art for your term paper.   At least there’s someone on the other end who will read that.

Effective fiction has rules. 

It has standards and expectations.

Period.  Non-negotiable.  At least if you want anyone to read it.  Especially if you want anybody to pay you for it.  Which is the very definition of commercial. 

As writers, we are compelled to answer yet another question, one that comes in various forms: do you want to publish your novel or sell your script? 

Are you willing to be commercial to do so?  Do you even know what that means?

If your answer to the first is yes – you really do want to sell your work – then you’d better also have answered yes to the second, else there’s a disconnect.  You need to strive to understand what being commercial means, and then put that goal at the top of your list of priorities.

Because outside of self-publishing and a wee corner of the small independent press niche – in other words, if you want your book on a shelf at Barnes & Noble – being commercial is required.

Not being commercial is a violation of those expectations and rules. 

And the only people who stand a remote chance of getting away with that are established, name-brand authors who have earned their keep and are allowed a flyer or two from their publisher, who wants to keep them happy.

The rest of us can’t get away with violating the fundamental principles of storytelling.  Even if you call it art.

And if that’s a box, so be it.  But it’s a box that is vast and limitless in its options.

So what are the rules?

And with that question we circle back to the beginning.  There are 172 posts and three ebooks available on this site to help you answer that question.

And we’re just getting started.

For now, rethink your story by asking yourself if you are being commercial.  If you are being commercial enough

Remember, those rules and principles don’t tell you what to write – that remains the art of it – just how to tell a great story, in a generally accepted and expected and commercially-viable way… they show us how a story should unfold on the page when you do.

Dream.   Wonder.  Think. 




Check out the recent posts by my friend Kelly Diels at Cleavage, part of a series on getting a book deal.

 Next post (the seventh in this series): The Rationalization of Mediocrity


Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

9 Responses to Rethinking Your Novel: The Quest for Art vs. The Quest for a Publisher

  1. Dream. Wonder. Think.




    You could have posted these as a poetic post in their own right, Larry. I’m a total advocate for the first two. So many posts about doing, doing, doing, and not enough about being still enough to let the inspiration land. Most books and films crash because folk don’t spend enough time dreaming and wondering, before capturing the idea that’s inspired enough to hold art and craft together.

    (By the way, it’s my blog’s birthday today, and there’s an old post about writing there you may like.)

  2. Curtis

    I checked out “Cleavage” as recommended.

    A Kelly Diels-ism worth passing on, I think. Found in, ” Why I Write About Sex…”

    The first time I had sex, I said, Let’s do that AGAIN!
    So we did. And then I wondered, like many a teen heroine before and after me, how does anyone have time to do anything else???

    Now, that’s how you write a sex scene.

  3. Steve

    If it’s art it’s art. If an artist says it’s his artistic expression, it’s art. You can’t defy the notion. If it’s paper plates and empty beer cans glued to a wall and spray painted red and black, it’s art.

    It’s also garbage. If that’s art I have an alley full of it.

    You can scream at the top of your lungs what you feel and call it singing. Simon Cowell will say “that was absolute rubbish.”

    But here, we want more. We labor over a single sentence among thousands of sentences. It’s no less expression or art than the spontaneous, primal rantings of a coffee house philosopher with a bongo drum (replace the bongo drum with a bass drum, snare and cymbal and it’s called comedy- “The government is God without a soul” ba-doom-ching). It’s just that it might end up being the least bit intelligible and that’s kind of the point with writing our stories isn’t it? To convey meaning that’s understood and profound. And, I’ve heard this too- Vicarious.

    Who’d have thought the process of good writing would be so close to the directions on shampoo bottles.

  4. nancy

    I clicked over to Kelly Diels’ page. Wow. Her language/vocab/word choice –whatever you want to call it–was mesmerizing. I couldn’t stop reading. And it wasn’t the juicy topic–yes, I know, sex sells. But no. It was the luscious language she chose to portray intimacy. Talk about artistry.

  5. Art: The quality of communication. One of our major goals as artists is to give/create in the reader a powerful emotional experience. No powerful emotional experience usually equals a User Guide on using the cat litter pan. Even there, a good writer can at least convey the message that the buyer made a good choice and will be happy with it.

    Communication is a science. Cause, distance and effect with duplication at the other end. That’s nuts and bolts. That’s the majority of the Six Core Competencies.

    How much technology (science) does art need? Enough to convey that powerful emotional experience. The virtuoso has so much effortless (it seems) technique that it appears invisible; the emotion simply shines through.

    If you’re writing for yourself, that’s totally fine. I do that a lot — cheat sheets, password lists, directions to my boss on how to find, etc. Not much emotion there since the audience is knowingly limited.

    You’ve seen the guys on the street (Times Square, downtown Hollywood) talking to them selves. Not commercially viable at all. I suppose you could call that art if they’re creating everything out of the thin air.

    On the other hand, just by reading this blog, it means you, the writer, are interested in giving someone else an emotional experience — even better, quite a few emotional experiences throughout your story.

    Write to sell. Write to your audience. If an “artist” isn’t commercially viable, he’s doing something fundamentally wrong. Either the quality of communication is insufficient (probably one or more of the Six Core Competencies is weak, the concept is not sufficiently high — part of that is artistic — or perhaps even the basic grammar or usage is out to lunch), or the emotion isn’t there to deliver.

    Technique sufficient to deliver the emotion. Someone giving a speech might rant, rave or what have you — there’s emotion there, but if he hasn’t delivered an understandable communication resulting in an emotion, his audience will wander away thinking Times Square/Hollywood is really strange.

    Kelly Diels doesn’t pull any punches. She delivers thought/communication expertly (technique) and you always come away with an emotional impact. A blog post might be a sentence; you still experience some emotion, even if it’s a little grin.

    Now, whether or not a writer/artist can actually sell his product might be a different issue — marketing, promotion, and what have you.

    But, if it isn’t viable in the first place (Six Core Competencies again) all the marketing and promotion will shortly fail — unless you try the Big Lie route politicians have been using for years.

    Write to communication that emotion you’ve found inside you. While you might not have panic attacks yourself, be able to show your character(s) having panic attacks and the reader’s heart will start pumping, his breathing will get a bit faster and he’ll come away with a “F*ing aye!”

    Do that consistently and you’ll be viable. The rest might be a crap shoot, but at least you’ll be betting with something of value.

    Go write something really good and make someone cry with happiness or grief. Then you can sell it. Otherwise, just write any old way and you can cry yourself to sleep every night.

  6. @Bruce – bravissimo, sir!

  7. Larry,

    A friend and I were having this discussion just the other day.

    Needless to say, we never reached any kind of agreement.

    However, you put it in a way that I can accept, even if I’d tweak a few things or clarify others.

    Take Care,

  8. Nicely said. Will post link on next Monday Mosaic on my blog. Thanks for sharing your viewpoint and expertise!

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