Thursday, May 16, 2013

Is "Hackwork" Necessarily "Hack Writing"?

Lately, I've been seeing another round of the "Don't just write what sells—it'll show!" vs. "If I write what sells, I can then have an income while I write my ideal genres…" Folks against it insist it'll show in the quality, that it'll necessarily be hack writing—an assumption that folks for it tend to be puzzled by.

But before we can get into that, we have to address…

What is "hack writing"?

Writers (and some readers) tend to have strong opinions on this question. Those who write from the heart are deemed artists, while those who write for the money are called hacks…. If you intentionally focus on a specific market or series that's selling, you're called a hack. If you publish more quickly than somebody arbitrarily thinks realistic, you're called a hack. If you write certain genres, you're called a hack…

So pretty much, when you write something that isn't appreciated by the "intellectual" crowd, you get called a hack.

*Note: If I may point out… How well does the genre targeted at intellectuals sell, again? Last I checked, literary fiction was renowned for very low sales.

Let's go back and define our terms, here (using the Merriam-Webster Unabridged dictionary):

hackwork (n)
: literary, artistic, or other professional work done on order or according to formula or conformity with commercial standards of quality; especially : work done by a hack writer
hack (adj)
  1. working for hire
  2. performed by, suited to, or characteristic of a hack : mediocre, uninspired
  3. hackneyed, trite

So looking at those definitions, there are two types of hackwork: work done to formula, and work done to be commercially viable. And a "hack writer" could be mediocre, trite…or just working for hire.

But whenever people use these terms, it seems as if they conflate meanings, insisting that writing to sell = writing to formula = work that's trite = work that's mediocre…

I call bull.

First off, there are plenty of writers-for-hire who do fantastic work.

Second, intentionally writing something that's commercial or to formula does not make something mediocre or trite. I've found that to be true even in my own writing, and I suppose I should walk through how it's possible to develop (commercial) hackwork without hack writing.

I developed Thrice Uncharmed by starting with a plot premise I knew the publisher would like. I then asked what genres they were wanting, and I molded the idea until it slipped into something approximating the genre, tone, etc. that I intended. That doesn't mean I despise the characters or world or any such thing—it just means that I used the publisher's preferences and content guidelines as foundational, outline-level pieces. The rest is all me.

It's not yet released, but so far, reader response has been positive—even among those who don't usually read sci-fi.

Now, A Fistful of Water (a novel I'm working on right now, #3 in a series)? I dislike the narrator. A lot. I feel sorry for her, but I find her unpleasant company. (Might be why I'm pulling teeth to get a scene up on Wattpad every Friday.)

But—and I'd appreciate it if someone who's read one of the stories I'm mentioning would chime in here—I had a hard time with the others in the series (A Fistful of Fire and A Fistful of Earth), too, for different reasons. And despite the difficulty I had writing those stories, it really doesn't show in the final product.

Just like the ease I had writing Thrice Uncharmed doesn't reduce its quality.

Now, I understand where the "Hack!" accusations come from. They don't fit a particular writer or reader's preconceptions about how writing works, but everyone is different.

Case in point: Dean Wesley Smith (an award-winning author with over a hundred novels under his belt) says that he never outlines, that once he knows the end, he's bored. Whereas I find it useful to figure out where I'm headed, before I'm too far into a story; it gives me a goal to reach.

I've tried his "Write and see where it goes" approach. Doesn't work well for me, at this point, though I could see myself doing better with it after I get more experience under my belt. We've, ah, conversed enough online for me to know that my method includes something he advises people to never do. I've tried writing both with an in-progress beta and writing something without one. If I remember correctly, he calls the former option "stupid", but I've found it helps me rather than hinders.

Everyone's different. A method not working for you or your favorite authors does not make that method unusable by anyone.

And hackwork (writing designed for commercial viability) isn't necessarily hack (trite, mediocre) writing. Nor is writing quickly or certain genres necessarily hack writing.

Can it be? Yes.

Is it necessarily? No.

What are your thoughts on hackwork vs. hack writing? Have any examples you'd like to share?


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