Writing is a numbers game–the more books you sell, the more money you make. If you write fast, it’s even better. Getting a book out every year for ten years (Jasper Fforde’s goal), if you sell enough, could be quite lucrative (and your hourly rate might actually approach positive numbers). Yet writing, good writing, takes time to craft. Story, characters, and prose itself do not happen overnight, particularly if you’re fond of tight dialogue and polished writing. But here’s the secret: not all readers are writers, and a lot of them don’t care about your perfectly polished prose.
Poor writing–a term I hear bandied about once or twice a year, whenever I’m in a group of writers–is not simply writing badly. It’s the perception of writing badly, of writing in a way that focuses less on literature and writing, and more on reading.
Don’t get me wrong–metaphor, allegory, and description are three of my closest friends. Whenever I read a passage I truly love, I add it to my Quotes & Adorations file, saving (and savoring) it for a time when I need a little literary love. But pop fiction, from chick lit to cozy mysteries, is popular for a reason: it’s easy to read, easy to digest, and easy to dispose of when you’re done.
It’s easy to dismiss pop fiction as trash for the masses. It’s also dangerous to dismiss pop fiction as trash for the masses. Why?
All books, even those which may be irritating/annoying/present a point we don’t agree with, have value.
The masses are aptly named–they’re the majority of readers, the folk who make bestsellers bestsellers.
Hello, my name is Peta, and I am a literary snob. I look my down my overly large Indian nose at many books, particularly when I’m in a funk over my own writing. I am irritated by clunky prose, drawn out of stories by dry dialogue, and find words like “ain’t” only a few ellipses short of repulsive. I pride myself on being able to craft a good sentence. I’ve also been known to spend hours crafting that one sentence.
Generally speaking, though, readers are not looking for a perfect sentence. They’re not looking to deconstruct a book, or get together and create a literary love file. Much as I–literary snob and book geek that I am–hate to admit it, the general reader is not looking for carefully polished prose. Most readers are looking for the Big Three:
Thought-provoking plot or characters
Familiar, straightforward writing
But straightforward writing, while not necessarily literary or writerly (writerly in a bad, overwrought sense) is a good thing, because it’s, well, straightforward, and easily understood by the lowest common denominator.
Finding the lowest common denominator is not just something you do in elementary math. (Though I do love fractions. Something about those little numbers and slashes makes me very happy. Recurring decimals? Blech.) But the lowest common denominator, in figurative terms, is similar to its mathematical counterpart: it’s a way of finding the broadest possible common ground, something that appeals to everyone, i.e. the masses. (I’m not using LCD in a derogatory sense–I’m a big fan of the masses, being one of them and all.)
Column writing provides a great example of appealing to the lowest common denominator. To write a successful column, it’s important to think about audience, and find the same wavelength as your audience. Craig Wilson, a columnist for USA Today, does this by using simple, clear language–most of his columns use common words with a maximum of two syllables. This isn’t because Wilson has a poor vocabulary, or because he thinks his readers have mashed prunes for brains. It’s because, for a popular columnist, getting the story across is more important than stringing together a few pretty words. (Fun fact: the word “prose” actually comes from a Latin word meaning “straightforward discourse”.)
In terms of fiction, writing for the lowest common denominator is not quite so simple, because there’s genre to consider. Hard science fiction readers have different interests, and a different threshold to historical romance readers. Each genre (even literary fiction) has its own language (I almost wrote “lexicon”, then remembered this is a post about straightforward writing). Historical romance readers may be familiar with terms like “farrier” and “roustabout” while science fiction readers are not. Shooting for just the historical romance reader may alienate potential readers skimming in a bookstore or taking a stroll through a friend’s shelves. Yet over-explaining, or using very simple language (“farrier” vs. “the man who makes horse shoes and takes care of hooves”), could frustrate experienced genre readers. So where is the line?
Putting Genre-Specific Language in Context
In a recent, very unscientific polling of my bookshelves, I discovered that my favorite authors are those who use context to explain or describe important details. Let’s say I’m writing a novel with a farrier named Percy. The first time I introduce Percy, I might write:
Farriers–horseshoe makers–were a welcome sort in every town, a fact Percy played to his advantage. Offering a three shoe for the price of two deal every Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday, he reminded his more intelligent customers that no, a better deal could not be got elsewhere, because there was, in fact, no other elsewhere, as Percy’s nearest competition was one hundred miles away, or eight hours by a regular horse, and twelve hours by a three-shod one, so they’d best take advantage of his deal and buy twelve shoes to save four hours.
Later, when I want to revisit Percy, but not go into such horse-shoeing detail, I could use sensory details to remind the reader of what a farrier is:
Athenia breathed deeply, savoring the farrier’s scent of sweat, fire, iron, and the forge mingled with the foppish apple tobacco he preferred.
The brief description of scents associated with Percy the farrier remind the reader that a farrier is, amongst other things, a type of metalworker. Added to other contextual clues, this is enough to ground the unfamiliar reader without irritating the seasoned one.
A Note on the Lowest Common Denominator in YA
Finding the lowest common denominator in a YA audience is a bit strange, because YA isn’t written along handy-dandy genre lines. And teens are less entrenched in a particular kind of reading, and are willing to jump around subject matter, so the general genre language rules don’t apply. Just be honest, write authentically, take a few deep breaths, and everything will be okay. Or at least as okay as it ever is. Of course, getting a handle on familiar style might also help…
On Thursday, I’ll have more about “writing poorly” and YA, in my very creatively titled post, Reading Fast, Writing Poorly, & Getting Old.
Do you write for everyone? Or do you stick to a specific audience? Why?