Saturday, November 19, 2005

Idol Writing - Compromising your Artistic Integrity

Soon, another season of American Idol will begin. And while I may not watch Lost, Survivor, or most other TV shows, I do watch American and Canadian Idol (but shhh, don't tell, it's my little secret).

I don't know if you know, but last season two contestants seemed very out of place there, at least at first. Same was true with Canadian Idol where one contestant was such a rocker, the judges didn't know if she would fit the pop singing and culture. One of them even asked her - are you ready to sell your soul? (my own paraphrase).

It is well known that rockers view pop singing as exactly that. An artistic compromise for the purpose of selling more CDs and be more popular. Well, what is pop(ular) after all?


Crossing the Line
Uploaded on October 30, 2005
by darkmatter
I often thought of the matter in my writing as well. What would be the point, if any, where I would say, 'Stop.' What is the line I wouldn't cross?

I know that many of you who read this are fiction writers mostly, so the question is almost moot. But not entirely. Has anyone ever decided to write in a certain genre because it was the "in" thing? Has anyone ever put in a sex scene simply to drive up interest? Has anyone ever changed her language because she suspected her own would not sell?

What about after a sale? Has anyone ever agreed to change something fundamental just to keep the sale?

Since I don't write only fiction, I find myself considering some of these things more often. I sometimes "dumb down" articles because I know this is what editors prefer even though the public is perfectly capable to be slightly more challenged. (One could argue that perhaps I don't write for the right markets, and one might be right, but still, it's an interesting point.)

In my fiction writing, also. I am always asked to change something. Without fail. I usually agree without any regrets, except for this one time. This one time will haunt me forever (or until I'm famous and can republish the story as it was originally written). I feel that on that one occasion I sold my integrity.

So I coined the term for my own sanity - idol writing. Sometimes, for a bit of publicity and a bit of money we compromise. Instead of carrying our hearts on our sleeves and sing rock/jazz/blues/punk we sing pop. Instead of writing with all of our hearts we write someone else's ideas.

Do you have a line you wouldn't cross?

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33 comments:

Stranger Ken said...

The problem with compromise is that you'll always know you've compromised and, worse still, that you've been compromised. On the other hand, if the price is right ... moral integrity's a difficult customer to hang on to, isn't it?

What do I do? Well, I only write what I want to write, but then, I'm hardly published either.

Carter said...

Integrity is vital to me. I'll pass up the money if it means compromising the story. That will make my life harder than it would be otherwise, but I'll be a lot more satisfied, and that's what is most important to me. Other people feel otherwise, and that's fine for them, as long as they can live with it.

Melly said...

Ken, but don't we compromise about most things in life? Nothing is the really perfect ideal we'd want. And we are still able to be content with most things despite compromising. Of course that art is different. So in my fiction writing I feel different about compromises than in my non-fiction writing. A lot more strongly of course.
I think it's slightly complicated especially if you would like writing to be a source of income, especially if most compromises are actually good ideas editors have.
It is sometimes hard for me to make the distinction between a fundamental change and one that will improve the story.
Oh, boy. Look at me going on... :)

Melly said...

Carter, I understand and fully respect your position.
But like I said in my reply to Ken, it's not always cut and dry.
Were you ever asked to write a favourable book review and refused? What if they'd pay you a nice sum for it? What if it was the New Yorker that offered you that? Would you then compromise if the book wasn't something you hated (you'd just have to embelish a bit) and in return you would gain money and a name after all... Would you do it then?
Very fine lines we're talking here.

ME Strauss said...

Hi Melly,
I have a line--now. But it took me a whole lot of experience with writing to really figure where that line belonged. Writing is such a give and take between the writer and the reader. I see it even more on my blog. I think I'm writing one message and the comments tell me that readers find 7 or 17 more. So I'm very careful about drawing that line. Though I think I'm like you in this respect that if it concerned asking a character to do something she wouldn't, I'd walk away from the situation--rather than make a character that was broken.

Pat Kirby said...

Typically, editorial comments I get ultimately improve the work; new eyes on the work and all. But I write fiction.

As far as technical writing, I'm not all that attached to the work. Dry technical reports like Environmental Impact Statements and computer documentation just don't contain my heart and soul.

If the client wants a change; I change it. No biggee.

I imagine it's different with other types of non-fiction, though.

Georganna Hancock said...

Sometimes I've thought my lines are drawn a little too closely to me. Certainly I've suffered for my principles. For example, I live in a big military town. I'm a pacifist. I've turned down, or not even applied for, countless jobs that support war and killing, either directly or indirectly. When I was an evaluator/researcher for a large institution, I asked for my name to be removed from several reports when the boss put a political spin on research results, conclusions that I couldn't support. If I were writing fiction, I couldn't glorify something I personally abhor. I think it's called having the courage of your convictions.

Carter said...

Melly, you're right that each situation has to be judged on its own merits. In the case of the New Yorker book review, I would have to refuse. If an editor wants an article changed to focus more clearly on the magazine's target audience, that's fine. I knew the audience when IU took the assignment. If the same editor wants the same article changed to promote a political ideology or opinion I don't support, then the deal's off.

It's basically the same with my fiction. I won't make changes that I think affect the integrity of the story negatively. Mechanical changes are fine; philosophical changes are not.

There are, of course, gray areas. There always are. The choice is not always going to clear or easy. It's just one more burden the writer has to carry, one more balance to strike.

I have made compromises in my life. We all do, all the time. Some of them I will regret the rest of my life. I am going to make every effort to avoid those kinds of compromises in the future, even if it costs me money or reputation. My own personal integrity is my most valued possession, and I will protect it against all comers.

Deborah said...

There are some things that I can't make myself write. False reviews that praise the book when I really hated it. Anything that involves lying to my readers, forget it. Guess I could kiss my check goodbye. :)

Writing for trends? I've yet to write a vampire series and am bored to tears with serial killers. I prefer originality over popularity.

Also, I don't believe in writing sex scenes in order to gain ratings. The sex has to fit into the story, or it doesn't belong.

As for making changes, that depends on what those changes are. If they help the story, fine. If they do nothing more than fit a marketing mold, then I'll pull it.

Eric Mutta said...

Hmmm, never really thought about it, probably because no one's tried to make write in a specific way - yet.

Years of constant frustration have given me thick skin to the point where not much offends or gets to me anymore. Because of that, I could probably write something totally uncharacteristic of me...though I wouldn't do it for money. If I ever did, the reason would be something I don't think I know yet.

Melly said...

Liz, you're so much better than me at accepting other people's interpertations of your writing. When someone "misunderstands" me, I get frustrated and automatically think it was poor writing on my part.

And I agree about being careful when drawing a line. It has to be a good reason.

Melly said...

Pat, you've been lucky with your editors.

It is no doubt that most changes that editors recommend are good ones and that they know the business and can most often only improve and help.

But I'm talking about an editor wanting a fundamental change in a character for example, and not merely pointing out that in this instance the character is behaving out of character.

And in non-fiction again, there are manuals and stuff like that where - who cares???
But could you write something that supports intelligent design for money for example?

Melly said...

Georganna, I did exactly that too, asked for my name to be removed on one occasion (it wasn't, but that's a different matter now...).
I can't imagine being a pacifist in a military town. Must be hard to find 'gigs', but all the power to you and I take my hat off.

Melly said...

"I won't make changes that I think affect the integrity of the story negatively. Mechanical changes are fine; philosophical changes are not."

Carter, I think you pretty much summed up our feelings around here, with the gray areas in mind of course...

Melly said...

Deborah, you also put it very well when you said "As for making changes, that depends on what those changes are. If they help the story, fine. If they do nothing more than fit a marketing mold, then I'll pull it."

I do have to admit here though that I have written for a trend once or twice. So far it panned out half the times. A pay check, but nothing I enjoyed much. However, we don't always enjoy our work, do we?

Melly said...

Eric, if you don't know the reason let me remind you of your world domination plan. That could be a reason - couldn't it???

Eric Mutta said...

Aaaah, world domination. Yes - that would be a good reason. "Do whatever it takes" and "Shoot now, apologise later" sort of thing :-)

Patry Francis said...

How much I'm willing to change a piece of writing would depend on how important that particular work was to me, and how reasonable the changes were. So I guess the short answer is yes, I have a line.

However, I understand how someone could be persuaded to change something essential to a piece when they are eager for publication. At some point, I probably would have done that, too--and then regretted it.

Ecks Ridgehead said...

Well, I'm unpublished so the question is a bit academic for me. Nevertheless, I have looked at the various "thriller-by-numbers" titles and thought that I could write better...but that I would feel dirty having done so.

So I write my books as I want to write them, and I toy with the idea of writing a hack thriller - under a pseudonym. That way it's not really me who crosses the line...!

Perfect Virgo said...

As I don't yet earn my living this way I can easily reach the moral high ground. No, I wouldn't compromise, I think someone would have to convince me I was wrong. Almost impossible against a perfectionist but then, never say never. Next year I give up my job and will have only pen and paper - I may change my tune...

ME Strauss said...

An additional thought I had about this idea builds a bit off what ecks ridgehead just said . . . I think of the writing for hire that I do as not "me," but as an opportunity to hone my skills--sort of like playing scales is to a musician. If they direct it, it becomes their work and I just execute. If it's my work, then I direct it. So I guess I live on both sides of the line. I bet that doesn't surprise you, Melly. :)

Trée said...

Melly, just checking in to see how you are doing. Hope and trust you are well.

Erin O'Brien said...

I absolutely WILL NOT describe my genitalia in meticulous detail for the local daily newspaper.

Unless, of course, I could do it under a pen name.

Melly said...

"How much I'm willing to change a piece of writing would depend on how important that particular work was to me" - Patry, words of wisdom. Of course, if we don't care, we don't mind...

And yes, what people do for the sake of publication, at least at first can be something they regret later. But we can't cry over spilt milk, or can we? :)

Melly said...

Ecks, you make a fine point. A fine point.
I know of a few writers who make their living writing "trash", or what they deem as such under a pseudonym, while writing serious literature under their own name.

Melly said...

My goodness Perfect Virgo, what a brave move. I take my hat off in appreciation.
I wish you all the best and hope you can stick to your guns and make a living writing only what you believe in, like, want.
Way to go!

Melly said...

No, it doesn't Liz. You're smart to take advantage of both sides. It's like a musician who plays in a band for hire, not playing her own music and maybe even playing at weddings ;) but making a real good living doing that while continuously composing her own music.

Melly said...

Trée, sorry. Everything's fine, just busy.
I knew I should have written something, explaining, but I simply knew that if I did, it wouldn't end in a quick note and I'd want to visit you and everybody else. So it had to be "cold turkey".

Melly said...

LOL Erin... And I thank you for that :)

fineartist said...

Melly this is such an interesting question that you pose. I am not a writer, I am an artist, and I teach students about art, but there are some similarities between the two processes.

I am in agreement with Liz, sometimes I take commissions and when I do, I am the skilled craftsperson following through on the ideas conceived of by the person who hires me. Serves as good practice, just as Liz pointed out. Other times I paint for myself, to learn, to work through technical problems, to fulfill a need, to please myself. I conceive of the idea, or the artistic concept and I carry it out as I see fit. One puts food on the table, the other puts food in the soul. Both have their place, and both strengthen me as an artist.

I know artists who say, my paintings are for sale, but I am not. Meaning, you can buy one of their paintings but they will not create one with your ideas. They don’t do commissions. I understand this feeling to a degree. I remember a time when I was painting portraits for people. Some of the things that people ask you to paint baffle the brain. I once painted a little girl in a pink tutu with a parrot on her shoulder. It was what her mother wanted. Ugh. So I painted it, it does help to have a sense of humor at times, yes?

If I am engaged in commissioned work, there is an understanding, and a knowledge that if I please the person who has hired me, then I get paid. As long as what I am creating doesn’t hurt anyone, I’m okay with it.

The difference here is one of ownership. I own the paintings that I create for me. The buyer owns the commissioned work. Your words, you own them, and with every change that is suggested to you, in every piece of writing, you must decide whether to change them, or whether to take the job in the first place.

Also, art can be so elusive, words are not that forgiving.

Melly said...

Fineartist, thank you so much for such a thoughtful comment.
I think that you nailed the difference about art and writing in your last line and it is that difference that can influences commission work.
My question is to you, as it was to the others, would you paint something to be used by a cause you don't believe in? Let's say some interest group approached you and wanted you to paint something that would represent them and you abhore the ideas behind that interest group - what then?

fineartist said...

Oh Melly thank you for explaining the question to me more clearly, and for taking the time to respond.

I tend to believe as Tolstoy believed, and others, that if a piece of art lacks the sincerity of the artist then it is no longer a piece of art, it’s only a picture. This statement sounds contradictory to what I stated before, so I will explain.

When I painted the little girl with her parrot, for instance, the feelings that I attempted to convey through the painting, were innocence and love, and it didn’t hurt me or anyone else. Though I would have preferred to paint her with different props I didn’t feel as if I was betraying myself or hurting anyone. If I were to paint a painting for a cause that I don’t believe in, then that would hurt me, and possibly others, so no, I have no desire to take on a commission that has the potential to damage my integrity, or feelings of self worth.

I say that now, knowing that at this moment in time, my needs and the needs of my children are being met. Honestly, if I had to choose between feeding my children and taking on work that I found disagreeable, I would reconsider my position, depending on how vehemently I was apposed to the cause. Most likely I would find other work, if possible, though.

So there you go, I’ve talked all around it and still don’t have a definite answer. Nothing is ever black or white is it?

I really enjoyed this post Melly, and thank you for making me feel at home here in your space.

Melly said...

Oh, Fineartist, thank you, I'm touched :)

I loved your first comment (it's not like there was an original question, each person pretty much took it where they wanted), but I just felt like I could "dig deeper" with you. You pretty much touched on evertyhing in your second comment. And I absolutely agree - there rarely is a definite black or white answer.