Wednesday, July 11, 2012

What Price Are You Willing to Pay?

Recently, a friend of mine on Facebook posted this blog (The Sheila Variations: It's Got to Cost You Something) and it really struck a chord in me.

At last year's SCBWI Conference, one of the speakers said the same thing.  A reader needs to feel that the book they're reading cost the author something to write.  Otherwise, why should they read it?  If the author didn't care enough, why should the reader?

I can tell you that all my favorite books are books that feel like they cost the author something very dear to write.  Before I Fall, by Lauren Oliver.  My God, that book came out of someplace deep and personal within her.  I Capture The Castle, by Dodie Smith.  Her heart is sprawled out all over the pages of that book.  And two of my very favorite books, Gone With The Wind and To Kill A Mockingbird, cost the authors so much to write that they never wrote another book again.

On the other hand, The DaVinci Code reads like Dan Brown wrote it with one hand tied behind his back while smoking a cigarette and reading The Times of London.  (Of course, he's laughing all the way to the bank, so that says more about what it cost US to read it than what it cost HIM to write it.)

Sure, we could become authors who blithely write dozens of books a year, churning them out without ever really falling in love with the characters or worrying about their destinies.  And maybe we'd make enough money doing this that we wouldn't care about caring.  I don't know about you, but I couldn't live with myself if I did this.

The thing that I love most about writing IS the caring.  The obsessing over my characters' fates.  The feeling of complete exhaustion and exhilaration I get after I've written an emotional scene.  I want to leave my blood and guts all over the page.  I want to put my heart out there and have every single one of my characters wear it on their sleeves.  Yes, it's scary; terrifying, actually.  But it's the good kind of scary.  It's the emotionally-satisfying kind of scary that comes from creating true, meaningful art.

And that is not to say that prolific writers can't also be the kind of writers who put their blood, sweat and tears into every book they write.  I've never read any of Stephen King's novels - I can't read horror; it scares the absolute bejesus out of me - but I have read On Writing, and I've flipped through enough of his books to know that his heart is pulsating out of every page.  I've read (and met) Anne Perry, the prolific mystery writer, and I know that she spills herself into every character. 

As Sheila O'Malley says in her brilliant blog post, it's got to cost you something.  That is the deal you make when you become an artist.  The best art doesn't look pretty.  (In fact, sometimes it looks horrifyingly ugly, like Munch's The Scream).  It looks like it was dragged out of the artist's soul and splattered onto the canvas or page or stage or film or CD, almost against their will.  That an imprint of themselves is left there, forever.  Forget alchemy; that is how we truly achieve immortality.

But the amazing and wonderful thing about being an artist is that for each piece of yourself you leave behind in your art, you gain back by continuing to create more art.  Give, and you shall receive.

Watch the footage of Elvis in the blog post above.  You can literally SEE the price he is paying with each note that he sings.

So the next time you sit down to write, take a deep breath, and pay up.


  1. Thanks, you said it perfectly. Nothing to add. :)

    1. Thank you! Nice to know I achieve perfection once in a while! :-)

  2. I agree, although I think you're somewhat unfair to Dan Brown. Some stories are not meant to arouse angst but adrenaline. And that's just as hard to write in it's own way. So I'd amend it to say whatever you want your reader to FEEL for your characters, you, the author, must genuinely feel first.