Today, in the comment boxes at Heavy Medal, someone brought up the inconsistent quality of Kate DiCamillo’s books.
Which is funny, because it’s not like Kate’s THAT inconsistent. I mean, she hasn’t written anything bad. I myself like Winn Dixie better than Edward Tulane, but she certainly hasn’t had any major failures.
But I want to use the comment as a jumping off point, to talk about how we set our expectations for authors.
See, here’s the thing… when you cook dinner, sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s less good. Right? But if you stick to recipes you know by heart and eat the same casserole each week, you’re likely to turn out a similar product nightly. You’ll become a “solid” cook. People will know what to expect from your crock pot.
So, what happens when you experiment a lot? If you buy an Eritrean Cookbook, or decide to do some gluten free baking? If you add cinnamon to your chili or hot peppers to your pie? Likely, you’ll end up broadening everyone’s palate, but you’ll also end up with some disasters… if you’re VERY lucky you’ll strike gold once in a while.
Writing is like that. The further an author strays from their memorized recipes, the likelier they are to grow and learn, AND the likelier they are to make a big damn mess.
I’ve always been a writer who would rather make 99 messes to discover or learn one new thing. I can prove this, easily, by showing you the 40 unpublished picture books I’ve written, the novel I didn’t finish, or the two full-length poetry collections that will never see light of day. Maybe it’s because I’m a poet, and poets do that, start a lot of things they won’t finish. Dabble. Play. But that’s how I work. I don’t think about the end result very much when I attempt something. That’s why they’re attempts.
But here’s the catch: novelists get paid to finish books, not start them. Often they contract to write a book before they’ve finished a draft. And when you’ve already been paid for something, and you’ve hammered away at it for a year or more, it’s much harder to shove it in a drawer. A DiCamillo or Creech book, even an “inconsistent” one, is worth buckets of money. Buckets! How often do you toss buckets of money away?
The Fourth Hand was worth a bucket of money to a lot of people. I have to assume John Irving knew it was no Garp, and no Owen Meany. He’s no dummy. But it’s hard to imagine him saying to his editor, “Yeah this one kind of blows. Can I get a do-over?” I mean, it’s a looooong book. So it is that (I assume) the less-than-awesome book gets published. Because he’d been paid for it. Because it was worth money. Because Irving was tired. And he needed to clean his desk and start the NEXT book.
It’s always about the next book.
Now, I have no idea what any other writer might say about their work, but I will tell you that I have personally had some moments of great fear while writing my novels– fear that each one isn’t better than the last. Fear that I’ll be compared to myself, and found wanting. That upsets me. I can live with the idea that I’m no Roald Dahl. But I quake at the thought of people reading Penny Dreadful and saying, “Wow. I really liked Any Which Wall, but this sucks. I wonder what happened…”
If people feel that way, I’ll tell you exactly how such a thing might happen… an author leaves the recipe they know. They try something new.
In the case of Penny Dreadful, I’ve abandoned my intrusive narrator. I’ve abandoned the drama of magic. I’ve left certain tricks behind, in hopes of learning something new. In hopes of writing more real. I’m trying to pull a Velveteen Rabbit Not because there was anything wrong with what I did last time. Just because it’s WHAT I DID LAST TIME!
And in the next book, the one I’m working on now, I’m writing in first person, and attempting to address a very painful experience in my own life–divorce– which isn’t something I’ve ever done before. This next book, Bigger Than a Breadbox, is something that feels totally different, and weird and hard. It’s a difficult lessons, and it may bomb completely. I’m terribly afraid I can’t pull it off.
But that’s what I think I’m supposed to do, as a writer. Risk stuff. Learn stuff. Maybe bomb.
I hope. I pray. I really do. That each book will be better than the last. That each book will please my readers. But the more I push myself, the likelier I am to disappoint people…
And that’s, I think, my job.