Writing Wednesday: When People Tell You You Can’t/Shouldn’t Write What You Want to Write
By Kara Newcastle
About two or so years before I published Nike, Part 1: The Demon Road, I was sitting in my parents’ kitchen, the rough draft of my book laying on the counter before me. I was going through the book line by line with a read pen, circling mistakes, writing notes in the margins, doing general editing on my manuscript. My mother walked in to start dinner and, seeing the huge binder and the red pen in my hand, asked me what I was doing.
“Just editing Nike,” I said, not looking up from the page I was working on. “Sometimes looking at it all printed out helps me find mistakes I would have missed on the computer.”
I couldn’t see so much as sense my mother hesitating as she placed a pot on the stove. She cocked her head a me a bit, then said slowly, “Kara … do you think this is a good idea?”
“Writing a fantasy book.”
Bewildered, I glanced up at her. “What do you mean?”
“There’s no money in fantasy books. Shouldn’t you write like a biography instead?”
My jaw dropped for a number of reasons, none of which I could articulate as I stared at my mother, speechless, shocked and hurt. Finally, I spluttered, “Did—did you just say that I shouldn’t be writing fantasy novels because there’s no money in it?”
My mom half shrugged and nodded. “Nobody buys fantasy books. You’re not going to make a lot of money that way.”
I felt a flare of anger shot through me as I snapped back, “Well, what about J.K. Rowling? And J.R.R. Tolkien?”
My mother wrinkled her nose at the names. “That’s not the same thing.”
Well, I’ll spare you the details of the “conversation” that took place after that. I’m sure my mother thought that she was looking out for me, but I knew she didn’t really know what she was talking about (she rarely reads, and if she does, it’s only biographies and memoirs, so it’s the only genre she’s familiar with.) That didn’t stop it from hurting … and it wasn’t the first or last time I had relatives, friends, teachers, boyfriends, relatives of friends, relatives of boyfriends, and total strangers try to talk me out of writing genre fiction, saying either that it wasn’t popular or wouldn’t be taken seriously.
Remember, when I first started writing I was thirteen years old, so people were impressed but unsurprised that I wrote about things like Amazons, witches, demon hunters, dragons, aliens and the like—it was expected of a young girl with a vibrant imagination. If I received any kind of criticism about it at the time, it was more along the lines of, “Eh, that’s not really my thing,” than an out-and-out lambasting of my stories.
That changed when I was a junior in high school and still writing fantasy, scifi and horror stories. Suddenly, I saw a decrease in support, particularly amongst adults. My writing and English teachers enjoyed my stuff, but other instructors, other adults, they started to complain. They started saying that I shouldn’t spend so much time writing about fantastical things because that was for “kids.” They rolled their eyes when I told them I wanted to write novels, saying that if I was so determined to write about fantasy things, then I should instead write children’s books, because only small children would like that sort of thing. No self-respecting adult would be caught reading a fantasy or scifi novel.
No, I’m serious, this all happened.
For a while, I was angry at the response, but initially ignored them, telling myself that they didn’t know what they were talking about, that if they actually liked genre fiction then maybe they’d feel differently about it.
But it wore on me; if so many people that I respected thought that genre fiction was a waste of time, that I wouldn’t be taken seriously as a writer, then maybe I should give things like literary fiction or historical fiction a shot. I tried to write a novel about the Prohibition era, but quickly lost interest. My attention kept wandering back to what I wanted to write, so I decided to keep writing fantasy, scifi and the like—I just wouldn’t tell anybody.
I had a little bit of an ego boost when I started posting fanfic online and got some generally good reviews, but I was still kind of embarrassed that I was 17, 18, 19, 20+ years old and writing this stuff. It wasn’t until I got my mitts on Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone that I really started to get excited about writing fantasy again. I mean, here was a book that was not only a major bestseller, it was also insanely popular among children and adults—that flew in the face of everything that I had been told before about fantasy writing being a waste of time.
And yet, there were still issues. In my senior year of college, I FINALLY got into the Creative Writing class, and, for my first assignment—because we were just told to write a story, no other guidelines given—I wrote a fantasy story. I remember my stomach twisting a tiny bit as we went around our big U-shaped group, talking about our stories and then reading segments out loud. Everybody had written something from real life: one wrote a story about a character who was addicted to heroin, another wrote a story about homelessness, I think. Then, of course, they get to me, and I remember reluctantly saying out loud to the whole room, “Uh … Actually, I wrote a fantasy story.”
God, I’ll never forget the look on my professor’s face when I said that. If I had said that I had summoned up Mephisto and sold my soul in exchange for writing a story, I don’t think she would have looked half as stunned. Meanwhile, I was startled to hear my classmates around me say things like, “Oooh, cool!”, “Really? We can do that?”, “Aw, I should have written one!”
And here’s the funniest part; when we met the following week with our new stories, almost everyone had written a fantasy!
Was that cool? To me, yes, but my professor came across as exasperated, and it didn’t do too much to impress some of my other instructors; I was bitterly hurt when, after telling one of my favorite professors about Nike, he gave me a puzzled look and said, “Don’t you think that’s kind of intensive stuff for a kid’s book?”
Luckily, I had two instructors who were over the moon with my Nike idea and even allowed me to work on the first novel as a part of my thesis. The others … not so much.
Praise and derision continued to be a part of my writing life (and still is) for years afterwards. When I went to job interviews, the interviewer would ask me what I like to do in my spare time. I would tell them that I was writing a book, and they would perk up and ask for more details. I’d tell them about Nike, and they’d lose interest. Relatives would encourage me to write more serious fiction, because that’s what they would like to read. Mom told me flat out that they had no interest in reading anything of mine so long as it had anything to do with fantasy and/or scifi, and Dad said he had no interest in it other than me making a lot of money off of it. One ex-asshole’s—oops, sorry, was that out loud? I meant ex-boyfriend’s—father was very dismissive of my fantasy writing and would pile books by Salmin Rushdie and similar writers on top of me, saying, “This is what you should be aiming for.”
And yet, while all these people are telling me that fantasy writing is not popular, eight freaking Harry Potter movies come out, Game of Thrones is a massive hit in both the literary and televised world, there’s a massive resurgence in the popularity of Star Wars, X-Files and Buffy are huge hits, Star Trek comes back to theaters, the Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit movies are blockbusters, James Cameron’s Avatar destroys records while Nickelodeon’s Avatar; The Last Air Bender attracts kids and adults alike, comic book movies have taken over, Neil Gaiman reaches nearly godhood status, The Legend of Zelda franchise shows no signs of fading away, ComicCon is wildly popular, and there are only a few billion websites dedicated to every effing fandom imaginable.
AND YOU’RE TELLING ME THAT WRITING FANTASY IS A WASTE OF TIME?
So, if and when you encounter people who turn their noses up at genre fiction, saying that it’s juvenile, not serious fiction, best for children, whatever—and you will—do this: smile derisively, and ignore them. You may want to argue why you want to write fantasy, scifi, horror, etc., but don’t bother because they won’t listen. Mark Twain summoned it up best: “Don’t argue with idiots. They’ll drag you down to their level and beat you with experience.” And it’s true; people who look down on genre fiction will stand by their opinion and make you feel terrible about your interests, and you’ll never win. Ignore them, all of them, even if they’re important people in your life, and keep writing. Don’t let anyone derail you.