Victory to the Outsiders?

In 2009, 288,355 books were traditionally published in the US, and 764,448 were self-published.  The numbers for 2010 were similar, though I don’t have the exact figures handy.  A million new titles a year.  No wonder my book queue does not grow any shorter!

As the sheer quantity of books in print grows, the amount of advice for writers seems to grow too.  Four smiling faces stare at me from the cover of the new Writer’s Digest, next to titles of the following articles I will find inside (this is their “10” issue):

  • 10 Markets Open to New Writers
  • 10 Writing Myths Busted
  • 10 Ways to Start Scenes Strong
  • Bestselling Secrets for 10 Top Genres
  • 10 Ways to Stretch your Creativity
  • 10 Tips for Beating the Fear of Rejection
  • Take your Writing on the Road:  10 Inspiring Destinations.

Last week at the gym, I had a minor epiphany.  The talking-heads were doing their thing on CNN, and I realized the TV financial advisors and those who offer writing advice have a lot in common.  They can inspire; they can stimulate the flow of ideas; at the right moment, they can spark individual creativity, but no one who depends on them, who tries to practice their often contradictory advice is going to do better than average in either arena.

After my workout, I took a book out to the pool area for a read and a swim.  Summer poolside reading is a pleasure I jealously guard.  No reading to self-educate.  This is where I let stories carry me away.  Where I forget the million titles a year for the one I hold in my hand.

This time at the pool, I was rereading passages from the wonderful, Emerald Atlas, by John Stephens, that I reviewed here:  This time, because of my earlier thought train, I noticed all the rules Stephens broke in his novel.

Common “wisdom” says that not only is the omniscient viewpoint passe, but it confuses middle-grade readers – and yet here it was, masterfully executed and just right for the story.  Similarly, the consensus on the proper age for middle-grade protagonists is 12, yet  Kate is 14.

Fortunately for us, John Stephens had a successful career writing for television before he started his novel, so I’m guessing he hasn’t read how-to articles for writers in quite a while.  For here is a built in contradiction – if a million books are published each year, and the brass ring goes to those that step”out of the box,” we are not going to get there by heeding advice on how to get into the box!

I want to be very clear:  I am not disparaging learning one’s craft – badly handled omniscient viewpoints aren’t pretty.  What I am saying is that if we slow down and listen, won’t our stories tell us what they want?  If stories come from deep in the part of ourselves that dreams, isn’t it somewhat rude to meet them with an armful of rules?

I find myself wondering how many truly original novels were written by outsiders, people who bypassed the whole seductive promise of 10 Ways to Break Into Print.  Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games was a TV writer like John Stephens before she wrote her novel.

Stephanie Meyer had not even written a short story before Twilight and had considered going to law school because she felt she had no talent for writing.  The idea for her vampire tale came to her in a dream, and she started writing because, after the birth of her first child, she wanted to stay at home and be a full time mom.  Echoes of the now-famous story of J.K. Rowling.

My cousin knew Jane Auel as a neighbor in a wooded Portland suburb, and never dreamed she was writing Clan of the Cave Bear at the kitchen table.  I doubt that the Inklings tried to tell Tolkien the proper age for Hobbits – 30 rather than 40.

What I am suggesting here – mulling over aloud, actually – is that all our lists of 10 Ways to do things are far less important than finding ways to remain Outsiders.  Outsiders who can dream without any fetters.  It isn’t easy, as anyone who even attempts it discovers, for the promise of an article or a friend’s advice on how to break into print can be as seductive as the lotus blossoms to the men of Odysseus’s crew.  Yet I am coming to believe it’s necessary to learn how to drop it all for extended periods of time.

For as the great Japanese teacher of Zen, Shunryu Suzuki said, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

6 thoughts on “Victory to the Outsiders?

  1. I love the quote, Morgan. It’s so true. I read a YA for a book review recently and found it singularly unsatisfying, and I struggled to get through it. Looking back on it, I found that it followed all the rules I’ve read in writing articles and books for writers of YA and there was nothing in it that stepped outside. It was so predictable I could hardly stand it. I felt like the creativity had been wrung out of the writer somewhere along the way. We do have to remember to let our stories lead us and to allow our creativity to shine through. Thanks for the reminder. I’m moving Emerald Atlas UP my list!


    • This week there was both a piece on NPR and an article in Time, informing the general public about YA. And I thought to myself that once a “fad” hits the pages of Time, it’s over. People who love the genre will stay with it, others will drift away, and eventually it will renew itself.

      I read a lot of adult fantasy during the 80’s, and finally just burned out on one too many “quest” series. Just recently I started a series in that genre that is strikingly original, that I am sure I will write about when I finish.


  2. While the specific tips may not be very useful for everyone, in many ways I think that tips that occur on many of these types of lists simply encourage you to think about how you are doing what you are doing. There comes a point in progressing in anything that you do where you have to stop and analyze what you are doing to be able to improve.


    • Thanks for your comment Adam. Certainly there are complex rhythms – time to keep your own council, time to share ideas with others. I am simply suggesting that most of the “rules” are “rules of thumb,” and we all must weigh what fits and when it fits.


  3. Your post resonates with me, Morgan. It confirms my decision to sit with my story and see where it wants to go. I’m done worrying about outside influences, at least until I have allowed the deepest dreams within me to find expression. Then I am thrilled to have input from those whose opinions I value. I feel both peace and anticipation about my decision. I also feel a sense of confidence that seems to come from fully embracing my own creativity.


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