Dear Writer-Friends,

I've been self-publishing since 2011, and I've shared the knowledge I've gained in two books: the Indie Author Survival Guide, Second Edition, and For Love or Money. I'm not an indie rockstar or a breakout success: I'm one of thousands of solidly midlist indie authors making a living with their works. These books are my way of helping my fellow authors discover the freedom of indie publishing. Write on, writer-friends!

S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Art of Writing

I have no art education, couldn't tell a Matisse from a Van Gogh, but I know what I like. I am a "reader" in the art world.

I believe that art is a tremendously personal experience. Someone once told me that the only thing I needed to know about art was how it made me feel. Being a logical Vulcan-type engineer at the time, this was a tantalizing idea - that art wasn't just for art majors, but that it was something meant to touch everyone differently.

My father was an ardent amateur photographer and Ansel Adams afficiando. My childhood home was littered with black and white pictures of nature. This was just my dad's thing to do, and I didn't think much of it. Not until I was given permission to feel something about art, did I truly appreciate the importance of it.

Art museums are wonderful and I enjoy the amazing masterpieces that are curated there. But no matter what the little notecard next to painting said about the tremendous importance of the art or the artist, I always used my personal experience as my final arbiter of the art itself. Did it resonate with me? What emotion did it tug out from the cloistered emotional chambers of my heart? (I talk this way now, being a writer; not so much then.) Personally (because all art is personal), I found much modern art to be ridiculous, even offensive (which are emotions, although not good ones). Then along would come a piece that would shoot right into my soul.

Mind you, I couldn't explain why (lacking that art degree). But I was just as likely to find that emotional connection with canvases strewn around a folding table at our local art fair, or in student art hung in our local bagel shop, as at the Chicago Museum of Modern Art. Sometimes, the skillfulness of the craft would be enough to arrest me, transfixed in front of a piece. But more often, it was the emotional connection that would scribe the art into my head, making it unforgettable.

This post isn't actually about art. It's about writing, and what the democratization of self-publishing means for writing as an art.

There are people that fear this democratization, thinking that they will be overwhelmed by the unwashed masses of writers who will upload their literary equivalent of a Velvet Elvis.
There's talk of wading through the "slush pile" of self-published works and how awful this will be for "readers" (the people saying this are usually writers who are also readers). There's also disparagement of self-published writers, no matter their level of success, the presumption being that their works weren't "good enough" for traditional publishing, so therefore their success must be due to marketing (as if the success of any book isn't dependent on marketing).

But whether I visit a local art fair in my hometown or the Chicago Museum of Art, I have to wade through art that doesn't speak to me to find the one that does. I don't think any less of the artists in either case. I don't look down on the student artists in the bagel shop who are brave and bold enough to put  their work out where anyone can see. I don't think the vendors at art fairs or the artist who sells a few works out of his basement studio are any less artists than the people curated by the MOMA, just because they haven't sold as much or haven't been critically acclaimed by the "gatekeepers" of the art world. I don't think of them as doing a disservice to the world by displaying their wares.

Quite the contrary.

The world would be a sad place without this expression of creativity for everyone to see, if the only art that was deemed "acceptable" for public consumption was the art curated in museums. Even the curators freely admit there is far more worthwhile art than they could ever display. Now, with the advent of the internet, virtual art fairs connect the artist and patron more easily than ever before. I've purchased art on Ebay from an artist I've never met, because his paintings reminded me of the beautiful Colorado landscape I left behind when I moved to Illinois. I'm still on the mailing list for a NY artist because one painting she made of Mozart as a boy spoke to me (I lost it in an auction, which still makes me cry).

The rise of e-readers has enabled writers to connect directly with readers in a way not really possible before. This e-distribution channel not only disperses novel-length works, but there's a resurgence of novellas, short stories, and anthologies. These forms didn't sell in sufficient quantities for NY publishers to print and distribute, but now the floodgates are open - to experimentation, to serious authors, to children publishing their first works to share with their friends as well as long-time closeted writers who are just now daring to share their stories with the world.

There's a richness to the very idea of it that I'm just beginning to appreciate.

Of course, the analogy is not perfect - you can assess art more quickly than a book (although this is what reviews are for). Much of the art that hangs in museums has passed the test of centuries of time, whereas lots of books "curated" by traditional publishing are released primarily for their ability to make money (think Snookie). But I think art is a close cousin to writing, and perhaps commercial art is writing's half-sister. This makes the different perspectives on the two media instructive (at least to me).

Also: this isn't an apologia for all self-published works. Some will be badly edited, slapped together and released before they are ready, just as there are paintings that are raw and unpolished that will be displayed at the local art fair. But, IMHO, the good of having stories written and shared (art created and displayed) far outweighs the fact that all of it will not be to my taste. Because this is (at least part of) why human beings write, why we paint, why we draw - to share that creation with the world.

I'm not an ideologue when it comes to self-publishing vs. traditional publishing. I think the route you choose should fit your goals as an artist/writer and the work itself. But I am passionate about this: I believe the democratizing force of digital distribution is a good thing for creativity and for the human spirit.


  1. Love this post, and I learned a new important word! "Apologia!" Thanks.

  2. @Jon I am all about those BIG WORDS. :)

  3. Thank you for writing this! I remember walking down the Arbat street in Moscow looking at all the paintings being sold. Stories as well as paintings are for the reader/beholder to experience. Some speak to us and not to others. I think your comparison of the self-pub world and the world of art is perfect. Thank you!

  4. So true the digital age can help a lot. But as with anything it does bring the crap and scams and all that other stuff. Just have to keep an eye open I guess.

  5. @Pat One hesitation I had in posting this was that people might think I was defending "crap," when I believe strongly in developing your craft. And I think every artist/writer believes in this, they're just at different stages. And writing is such a highly subjective thing ... the further along I get, the more I believe that the most important thing is the experience of the reader.

    As for scams ... absolutely, those are legion, and getting worse (and often from places you would expect to know better). Writers have to beware even more today.

  6. "I don't know much about art, but I know what I like."

    - Source unknown (at least by me)

    Great post. I cringe any time I hear school budget cuts are coming, because the fine arts are usually first, second, and third on the chopping block...yet they are the most beneficial to the intellectual growth of our children.

    Luckily many artists are willing to starve to serve their craft, so in the face of low / no sales and revenue, art will still thrive, and it's getting easier to find it.

  7. I don't know a lot about art either but like you, I know I like it if it makes me feel something.

  8. @Rick I think the "getting easier to find it" part is KEY to having it thrive/survive. If you can make even a little money at something, it makes it easier to justify continuing ... as true for writing as it is for art.

  9. very interesting points. and i love the point of time-consumption of writing. reviews DO help... but how many reviewers out there agree with the eye of the beholder...

  10. Also, you know, good for freelance copyeditors. :)

  11. This post speaks to me on multiple levels. Appreciation of art is a subjective thing, and too many people are intimidated by critics telling them what they should like. When I walk in a gallery, I see some things I don't care for, some that are nice enough and, usually, something I would die for. But someone next to me might not agree at all.
    My walls are filled with contemporary art that I was willing to spend my hard-earned money on, and each piece hits me on some emotional level.
    In this new era of publishing, we can usually read the first chapter before purchasing, which should give a pretty decent indicator of the author's style and skill.
    Anyway, I don't think there will be any turning back now.

  12. Susan, I could not agree more. Art aesthetics, what resonates with YOU, is what it is all about. Not what the artist meant to say...that is almost irrelevant. I've walked by pieces that mean nada to me, but others are drooling over, and visa versa. What strikes one person in a book turns the other off. Critics of movies often don't belay how I will really feel about a movie.
    Great post

  13. I felt that way about piano since my introduction to it was my cousin's intentional practice torture. LOL But I learned to appreciate it when I realized what it really was about. I know, I know, your point was about choice and personal taste with writing and I agree! I just had to get that out there!

  14. Hey, I actually like that velvet Elvis.

  15. "I am a 'reader' in the art world" - I love that! I also have no background in art, but just because I don't know why I love a certain piece doesn't mean I love it any less.

    This is a very good analogy for self publishing, and I agree with what you say. It's just like how You Tube is a wonderful thing for musicians - we can discover great bands that otherwise might've never made it out of their basements. No more letting the labels telling us what to listen to...or read. ;)

  16. Letter-writing has always been one of my passions in life. That's why it saddened me that in the computer age, letter-writing is slowly losing its touch.


  17. This post is so interesting to me, having been a painter who showed in galleries, and now writing. Part of why I was ambivalent about selling paintings is that I thought that its world was rarified, and precious. What do I mean by that? It felt UNdemocratic that a person had to pay so darn much for one painting (however spectacular) and only one person got to own it. Whereas, a book sells for about ten dollars, and anyone can buy the same book. I celebrate that reality. Indie publishing has only amplified that wonder.

  18. This post is so interesting to me, having been a painter who showed in galleries, and now writing. Part of why I was ambivalent about selling paintings is that I thought that its world was rarified, and precious. What do I mean by that? It felt UNdemocratic that a person had to pay so darn much for one painting (however spectacular) and only one person got to own it. Whereas, a book sells for about ten dollars, and anyone can buy the same book. I celebrate that reality. Indie publishing has only amplified that wonder.

  19. I love this post! You often get me to look at a situation in a new way - thank you - great analogy with the coffee-house art.

    Btw, I mentioned your books on my blog today!


Erudite comments from thoughtful readers