I’m not a beer drinker. But when I watched a recent Reason.TV video about craft beer, I wanted to become one. I’m not interested in YellowWater Light beer. I’m interested in the niche, microbrew beers, dark, stimulating, challenging, insightful. Craft beer, say the experts in the video, has “taken traditional styles and [run] with them… providing choices for people.” They go on to point out that the big 4 breweries “make the lightest beer imaginable in order to create the lowest common denominator of flavors, so that their marketing and their image is what people buy into, and there’s nothing about the flavor that challenges that decision for them.”
In fact, my only real exposure to beer was at a microbrewery, the Watch City Brewing Company, in Waltham, MA. We all went out for a farewell lunch there, one of the few rituals I miss about office life. We enjoyed burgers and fries, and a couple pitchers of brew, which I sampled. Interesting flavors, reminded me vaguely of herbal tea. And I still remember the experience fondly.
I myself enjoy wine. But I generally stay away from whatever pop wines are discounted at the front of my favorite wine store, because they usually cater to the lowest common denominator. Rather, I prefer the aisles nearer the back. I’m not a wine snob, but you can call me a “wine snob wannabe.”
Microbrewing, like winemaking, is about manipulating the flavor of the beverage via the brewing process, achieving a variety of taste sensations. That’s what excites me about the prospect of exploring craft beers. There’s very little right or wrong, or good or bad. There’s only what you like, what you don’t, and the pleasant surprises you didn’t expect to come out of that particular bottle. And apparently a growing crowd of beer lovers agree, as the craft beer industry continues to swell.
Compare this to the indie-music scene of garage band musicians, who write and perform music that they enjoy, not to cater to the masses, but with the hope that they will find just a few others who also enjoy the same music experience.
Back when I was in an indie band, if we had hopes of a money-making future, it was only by getting signed with a label. That was the dream, to get signed. Not all garage bands held that dream, because they didn’t want to compromise their music and they knew that getting signed might mean artistic compromise. Others realized that getting signed was a long-shot, that it very likely would never happen, and they, too, performed their music for the music’s sake, as a form of self-expression.
I don’t ever remember being made to feel inferior simply because of the music that we played, an eclectic flavor of Christian hard-rock that even today would be considered alternative. Yes, we did some more mainstream-sounding tunes, like a keyboard ballad that I wrote, or a fun, bluesy number by another band member. These we did next to some crazy guitar pieces, wild melodies that our vocalist loved to run with, and even a song I wrote in 7/8 time, which borrowed from jazz, rock, and celtic music styles. (We practiced that song for weeks, section by section, until we got it right.) No matter what we played, listeners and fellow musicians alike respected and even sometimes enjoyed our twisted do-re-mi’s.
It’s interesting, if not surprising, that today’s technology, which makes it easier than ever for indie bands to record and distribute their music, has done little to change the basic motivations that musicians have for playing or that fans have for listening.
Compare this to the life of the self-published author. I can tell you a song has an “indie feel,” or that it sounds like a “garage band,” and you know what I mean without necessarily thinking badly of the song. In fact, an indie feel can be a big plus, especially if you—like me—get easily bored with the screed that fills top-40 radio. But say the same thing about a novel, that it feels “self-published,” and everyone recognizes the statement as an insult, because apparently “self-published” means “reads like shit.” Except that it doesn’t, not any more than “garage band” means “sounds like shit.”
(By the way, feel free to point out that I misused the word screed in the above paragraph. I’m keeping it in!)
No one expects a garage band to limit themselves to a music genre. “So are you metal? Are you jazz? Or are you celtic or middle-eastern or latin or what?” Musicians get excited about songs that combine disparate musical styles into a brand new unified whole, not quite like anything played before. And so do their listeners. But writers—those who “are published” and those hoping to be someday (which just about covers all of them)—they go through great lengths to “understand their genre,” by which they mean that they want to know what the genre’s readers expect so that they won’t shock them too much. Sometimes I get the impression—listening to industry insiders—that the only thing romance readers want is “Boy meets girl; boy loses girl; boy gets girl.” And as a writer it’s hard to get excited over that. (Good thing I don’t buy it.)
We don’t tell the indie musician, “No one will take you seriously unless you have a four-chord song.” (In fact, I struggle to take seriously any band who does have a four-chord song.) But everyone tells the self-published author that no one will take her seriously unless, for example, her character has “a problem,” which is revealed early in the story and only gets worse as she gets closer to solving it.
For example, Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman give the following advice in the first chapter of How Not to Write a Novel: 200 Classic Mistakes and How to Avoid Them:
Typically, the plot of a good novel begins by introducing a sympathetic character who wrestles with a thorny problem. As the plot thickens, the character strains every resource to solve the problem…
The plot of a typical unpublished novel introduces a protagonist, then introduces her mother, father, three brothers, and her cat, giving each a long scene in which they exhibit their typical behaviors…
A typical plot event in an unpublished novel is when the protagonist gets a disastrous haircut, at a moment when her self-esteem is hanging by threads. This sets the character up for the ensuing “Mother thinks protagonist spends too much on haircuts, but is made to see that self-esteem is crucial to mental health” scene… Cue waking up the next morning on page 120, with anything resembling a story yet to appear on the horizon.
Note the contrast between “good” and “unpublished,” as though they were opposites. (They’re not, by the way.) And feel free to substitute “self-published” for “unpublished,” because to industry insiders, they’re one in the same. Of course, I’ve never read a self-published novel that starts by introducing the protagonist and her family in a rambling fashion. More significantly, there is nothing in the “self-esteem” plot described above that would turn me off; what they describe there actually sounds like a potentially interesting story.
But cue the most telling of all, their final snub, the lack of “anything resembling a story.” What they actually mean is, the lack of any story they are used to. It’s the four-chord song again, the light beer, the pop-fruity wine, the lowest common denominator, the three-act structure and its variants.
First of all, stories need conflict to push them along and keep them interesting, not “problems.” Conflict is a perception by the reader, which the author can easily invoke by giving problems to a sympathetic character. Industry insiders tend to conflate problem and conflict, because it simplifies their life. But if you as an indie author want to play with different kinds of conflict, don’t let industry insiders tell you you’re wrong, because you’re not.
Secondly, characters have needs, which do cause problems when they go unmet… and self-esteem is indeed a fundamental human need. That bad haircut may be just the thing to push our character over the edge. Maybe it would make some readers roll their eyes, but those readers can always find refuge listening to four-chord songs and drinking light beer.
Thirdly, the main conflict of the story—much less the character’s main problem—doesn’t need to be revealed early in the story. Some wonderful stories reveal the main conflict slowly, pushing the story along with lesser conflicts, sometimes insignificant ones, until the main conflict builds momentum. I love to talk about the pilot episode of my all-time favorite TV show Gilmore Girls, which begins with a scene in which Lorelai (the main character) needs coffee, and Luke (the diner owner) won’t give her any. Yes, that’s her “problem.” She needs coffee. Not a huge problem. Hardly even worth mentioning. But it takes us through a half a scene, introduces us to the characters, and gets the story rolling.
Most astonishingly, I’ve seen readers rave over short stories that bore me to tears, because—hello!—no conflict at all. Now, either those readers are lying, or they’re stupid, or maybe they’re just expressing their opinion about a story they enjoyed reading.
Brew what you love; play what you love; write what you love
In the craft-beer video, Ron Lindenbusch talks about brewing a distinctive beer: “We started making our IPA in 1995, and it immediately became our flagship, because the first people that drank it said, ‘My God! Nobody’s gonna drink this!’” But of course, they did drink it, and lots of it.
That doesn’t surprise me in the least. Microbreweries grew out of home brewing, people experimenting and making beer that they enjoyed drinking, and sharing it with others. Craft beer is now the fastest growing segment of the beer industry. They brewed what they loved, and the fans followed.
In music as well, if you play what you love, the fans will follow.
In writing, if I write what I love, won’t I find anyone who also loves the same thing?
As craft brewers brew and indie musicians play, writers write primarily to express themselves. And I think that’s okay.
It’s okay to experiment, combining elements of disparate styles, in order to seek a unique reading experience.
We should stop pretending that all writers are only trying to “get published,” to go mainstream and hit the mass market.
We should acknowledge that there is a place in the world for literature that breaks the rules, maybe even that reads a little rough around the edges. That’s not a quality to be afraid of. It’s something to play with, to experiment with, to have fun with. Something to experience!
We should definitely acknowledge that there’s a place in the world for literature that we may not understand. Just because it challenges our minds, just because we don’t know how to analyze it, that doesn’t mean it’s no good.
We should stop encouraging unpublished writers to lock up their manuscripts where the world will never see them.
And we should never again look down on the self-published author for accomplishing her passion.