Months back I was reading about how John Locke sold a million books and his response to his critics is unique. He doesn't engage any assertion that his books might be poorly written. Instead, he shrugs and says the haters are simply not his market. There's some virtue in this way of thinking and it is a paradigm shift.
Yet I think this paradigm has its limits. I've tried to follow two commandments in my writing:
- Thou shalt be interesting.
- Thou shalt be clear.
Give Catnip To Cats and Dognip to Dogs
So, are you cool with a writer interrupting a narrative with an extended treatment of discrete mathematics complete with equations? No? Would that constitute bad writing because it's uninteresting? Doesn't Neal Stephenson do that? Or how about an extended political monologue? Didn't Ayn Rand do that?
Mathematics and libertarian politics are--to some readers--what Elmore Leonard calls "the stuff people skip." To other readers the stuff is pure catnip. Some people are bored to tears by that which titillates others. This makes the first commandment of being interesting an audience-dependent thing.
The writer needs to know who's going to be reading his work before he can know how to keep that first commandment. Thus, if you are in any way inclined to read my work, please tell me about yourself.
Don't Make Enemies
In addition to politics there's religion. Not that many of you are Zen Baptist Puritans, and if you make your book into a tract for Something Else, I'll probably toss it against the wall. Good and evil are concepts that are non-denominational and non-sectarian. C.S. Lewis wrote from a Christian perspective, but nobody would call Narnia a heavy-handed tract because he engaged his readers at the level of good and evil as it runs through the center of human nature. He didn't engage in Bible thumping because it would alienate everyone who doesn't think the Bible to be God-inspired.
There are zero-sum games. I can think of a few topics of conversation that always end badly, because no matter what position I take, the issue is so polarizing and the passions so strong, that someone on one side or the other will be so angry, I'll create an enemy. The only way to win these games is to not play. I just won't go there.
Don't Be Evil
Sometimes you can be ambivalent about gray areas. People of good faith disagree about whether such and such is acceptable behavior or not. That's not the case here. The writer needs a moral compass that's magnetized enough to sense when there is a consensus that a thing is wrong and must not be treated ambiguously.
A friend was deeply offended by a "romance" novel that depicted rape and pedophilia with too casual a treatment. I'll take my friend's word for it that the work stunk. I thought it unworthy of the time and bother of condemning it. But my friend grabbed hold of it and brought every cannon to bear in deprecating the work in the harshest possible terms. If the work was merely bad, she would not be so motivated to badmouth it, but the work was evil, and my friend felt a moral obligation to condemn it as evil--like Captain Ahab pursuing Moby Dick.
Personally, I noticed this a couple years ago when I revisited Edgar Rice Burroughs' John Carter stories. Since these are all in the public domain, I reformatted them to look good on my Sony Reader (This was in my pre-Kindle phase.) I read a few of the novels and then ran into something I hadn't noticed when I first read the books when I was a teen. John Carter's son--the protagonist of whatever novel I was reading--owns slaves, and the antagonist insinuates himself into the young man's household as a slave. Who should I root for? I don't approve of slavery, even fictional slavery on another planet. I put the book down and haven't read anything else by Edgar Rice Burroughs since.
Don't Be A Writer
I've goofed around trying to write in a style or voice that's congruent with the time and place of the POV character. This is a mistake. Yeah, it's cool to write like a Victorian. I rather like the old stuff better than I like the new stuff. And this lets me write like what I prefer to read. But I hear people remark about the words and I realize they're not thinking about the lifeless body hanging in the locked room . Fail.