You’ve Got to Please Yourself

James Scott Bell

But it’s all right now,
I learned my lesson well.
You see, you can’t please everyone,
so you
got to please yourself.
– “Garden Party” by Ricky Nelson
So, writer, do you write to please yourself? Do you write for “the market”? Or is it something in between?
I advocate that you know about the market, have a sense of what’s out there. This is, after all, a business. Publishers actually want to make money. Editors will talk about seeking fresh voices, but they also know they can be “too fresh” to sell to their pub boards.
But in the end, when you finally decide what story you’re going to devote a significant chunk of time to, you’ve got to please yourself.
This is the pattern I followed for Pay Me in Flesh. I came up with a concept I thought was great for the market, something that hadn’t been done before. Kensington took it on and I proceeded to write a book that pleased me—because that’s the only way you can write something ultimately refreshing to readers.
That’s my view, anyway.
Which brings me to Edna Ferber.
(What? How did he go from zombie legal thrillers to Edna Ferber? Watch!)
No one seems to read Edna Ferber much anymore. But in the early twentieth century there was scarcely a more famous, or more popular, American writer. From her first novel in 1911 to her last in 1958, she had one of great careers in American letters. Not just novels, but plays (co-writing, among others, Dinner at Eight and The Royal Family), short stories, memoirs and newspaper columns.

I didn’t know all this a year ago. All I knew about Miss Ferber was that she wrote the novel for a film I’ve never been able to get into, Giant (1956). I find the movie overlong and mostly tedious. I’ll watch some of it when it comes on TV for two reasons: a) to look at Elizabeth Taylor in her prime; and b) the final fight scene where an aging Bick Benedict (Rock Hudson) takes on a bigoted diner owner.
Anyway, one day last year I got a miserable head cold that had me whining around the house like a bored five-year-old. My wife finally told me to get out of her hair and into a sick bed. Too miserable to read, I turned on TCM to watch whatever was on.
It turned out to be a 1953 film called So Big,starring Jane Wyman and Sterling Hayden, both of whom I like. So I just started watching it and what do you know? I got caught up in the sheer storytelling. It’s about a Chicago girl who grows up wealthy, only to see father lose everything. She’s forced to take a teaching job in Dutch farm country well outside Chicago city limits.
It would seem like a recipe for a disappointing life. But Selina Peake is a woman of grit, with the ability to see beauty in the mundane. The practical Dutch don’t get her at all, until she catches the eye of the big farmer, Pervis DeJong. They marry and have a son, and the story covers about thirty years after that.
I enjoyed the heck out of it.
The film was based on Edna Ferber’s 1924 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize. So I thought I should read some Ferber. I ordered a used copy of So Big and downloaded what’s free from Project Gutenberg.
So Big was just as enjoyable as a novel. There is also an interesting afterword in my edition, a bit about Miss Ferber’s life and craft. She started to get critical blowback the more popular she became. What a surprise. Some critics said she should have “written better” prose.
Edna Ferber’s response is the reason I wrote this post and titled it as I did:
“Those critics or well-wishers who think that I could have written better than I have are flattering me. Always I have written at the top of my bent at that particular time. It may be that this or that, written five years later or one year earlier, or under different circumstances, might have been the better for it. But one writes as the opportunity and the material and the inclination shape themselves. This is certain: I never have written a line except to please myself. I never have written with an eye to what is called the public or the market or the trend or the editor or the reviewer. Good or bad, popular or unpopular, lasting or ephemeral, the words I have put down on paper were the best words I could summon at the time to express the things I wanted more than anything else to say.”
So, writers, what do you think about that?  

20 thoughts on “You’ve Got to Please Yourself

  1. I just don’t see how anyone can invest the time–the YEARS it takes to write if they’re not writing to please themselves. I have always said I write to please myself first–and what I like is not as popular as some other things, but that too, is my choice.

    I have faith my books, with hard work, will find their market, when, where and how they are supposed to. But above all, they have to please me.

    BK Jackson

  2. Fiction is purely subjective. No one will ever write a novel or a story that everyone likes. Since I know I can’t please everyone, I write to please people with the same taste I have. I write the kind of novels that I would like to read. Sometimes I wish my writing style were more literary, but then, I usually don’t like literary novels. There are some exceptions: The Color Purple, The Secret Life of Bees. But I thought I would die before I got through The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. I kept telling myself, ‘She won a Pulitzer! Don’t you want to win a Pulitzer?’ My conclusion: Not if this is what it takes.

    I want to write novels that are so easy to read, people forget they’re reading. I want the prose to be so transparent that people don’t have to think. I want the transfer of ideas to be effortless. When readers wake from the fictive dream, I want them to realize they’ve been edified and nourished–heart, mind, and soul. But I want all of this to go unnoticed while they’re reading, because I want them to be utterly lost in the story.

    Am I likely to be regarded as a literary genius for this? No. (Hey, if you think it’s easy, you try it.) But I think there will be people who love my novels. People like me, who love Jane Austen and Sue Monk Kidd and Jodi Picoult and Maeve Binchy. But to please those readers, I only need to please myself. They are my people. They will understand.

  3. I think you should get sick more often. Nice post, Jim.

    I’ve often said that if you’re an avid reader and have a passion to write a story you want to read, then YOU are “the market.” Yes, you should be aware of your business and trends and craft, but your passion to write that special story will come through your words. I really believe that’s what happened when I sold my debut book (& 2 others in auction) – NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM. I had finally found a voice in suspense (crime fiction is my comfort read) and stopped trying to write my perception of the trend in contemporary romance.

    It seems so simple now, but it was risky then to launch into my idea of romantic suspense (which had less to do with romance & more to do with thrillers). I started calling my work “romantic thrillers” before that name caught on.

    Now I’m writing YA, bringing a different kind of story to teens with each book. All I know is that I’m having fun & doing “my thing,” whatever the hell that is. Thanks for the thought provoking post, Jim.

  4. All I know is this…

    The words I write are divine intervention.

    Now, that may sound simple to most folks and I know everyone holds their own world-view about how to get the job done, but I believe I was put here for a reason and there isn’t another person out there who can write what I write.

    I have to say things my way.

    Yes, I study craft. I listen to professionals who have been there and I learn from them. I try to follow the rules of the road and come up with the clearest sentence structure possible so reader can immerse themselves in story and effortlesly get the main idea.

    I listen to criticism openly, even if it stings, and try to pull something positive from it.

    In the end, though, these are my words. They come from a special place. Notice I used the word intervention rather than inspiration. When I’m pleased with my words, and they all settle into place on the page I stand behind them.

    Great post, Mr. Bell, as always.

  5. Great comments, all. I want to add one thing to what Paula said about the craft. As you know, I am a a craft guy, because I see it as a way of freeing the true voice, so that readers can truly connect to your vision. When I teach structure I call it “translation software for your imagination.” You’ve got your story and your feelings about the story in your head. How do you get that on the page so readers can access it? Craft.

    In his madness, Jack Torrance (The Shining) wrote a thousand pages of “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” That may have pleased him, but it did not free him.

  6. If I’m not happy with my work, it doesn’t matter if anyone else will like it…cuz they ain’t gonna see it.

    As far as pleasing everyone, I do believe one can do that. Of course it requires hypnosis and lacing the pages with certain plant substances.

    I am presently working on a rorshach blotch that instantly hypnotizes the reader and simultaneously automatically tells whatever story they like most deep inside their sub conscious. This way one can read the book over and over and get a different, well loved, story every time.

    Yup…I love my work.

  7. Jim, I love your point about craft. I would make the same point about grammar and usage, as boring as that may sound. If you don’t know how to punctuate properly, you’ll waste a lot of time wondering whether you need to put a comma in a sentence. (Or would a semicolon be better? Or a dash?) But once you know the rules, you can use punctuation to your advantage. You can control rhythm, flow, and pacing. You can draw the reader’s attention to one point while burying another. When using your writer’s tools becomes second nature, you’re free to place your focus on the story, where it belongs.

  8. I think enough of the quote to have saved it to my hard drive for future reference, and may blog a link back to your post. It sums up more eloquently than I have a major reason why I stopped looking for a contract and chose to self-publish my e-books. They sell or they don’t. I write what I’d like to read warts and all, and have received enough positive feedback to know there are at least a few people who will enjoy reading it as well. That’s good enough for me.

  9. Good post. I think you just have to write what’s in your heart and hope there is a market place for it, and if there isn’t a market, go ahead and tweak the content, but not to the point that you dislike writing it.

    Oh and I always find it interesting and amazing to learn about someone who was immensely popular back in their day but somehow slipped out of modern consciousness.

  10. “Every book I’ve ever written was the next book I was dying to read.”

    JM that’s one we ought to tape to our computers or notebooks. Having that in front of us even during the editing phase would cut right to the chase.

    BK Jackson

  11. Great post!
    I’m miserable when reading books I don’t like. If I wrote a book I didn’t like then people had better watch out because I’d be grumpier than anyone has the right to be. Besides if I didn’t like what I wrote, what makes me think someone else is going to enjoy it?
    Also I like to read well-written books, so I want my books to be well-written. Meaning I need to study my craft, which is actually quite fun. 🙂

  12. It as a talented writer who writes to please him/herself while having a finger on the pulse of the market.

    Perfect example: Heather Graham. Over 150 books published since early 1980s. Everything she has written has made it into print, and more often than not to the NY Times list. And while pleasing her editors, she creates stories she loves to write, every time. She has certainly been an inspiration to me.

    As for me, after brainstorming with my new editor, I’ve become excited about four more stories to produce that will also please her. I can’t wait to dig in, research ’em and get writing. So, James, I’m thinking a writer writes to please him/herself no matter what, or the results are crap, and the reader knows it. I’m just sayin’.

  13. I fall somewhere in between on that one. I write what I want to write, but only if I think what I want to write is what a certain segment of the population will want to read. I figure that if I don’t enjoy it, it won’t be any good, but there are things that I’ve considered writing that I don’t figure other people would enjoy or that I would just as soon other people didn’t know I wrote. When I write something, I want to be able to stand behind it.

  14. Wow, I loved her quote. Thank you, Jim. I really needed that today. I’ve been mumbling, struggling, and hitting brick walls trying to work on a project to please others. And the funny thing is, the project is so off base if I write to please people.

    Dusting myself off and climbing over the wall!

  15. I echo Joe on this one, Jim. I’ve always written what I like to read. I just wish there were more people out there who had my impeccable taste.

  16. I’m with Ms. Ferber. I don’t really care about market. I write what I want and when I want. Maybe someday that will change, but for now I’m happy to have my blog to express myself, creative writing classes to challenge me and writer’s conferences to meet like-minded people. 🙂

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