Monday, April 22, 2013

Getting Your Foot in the Gate: the subjective nature of writing

by Cat Woods

This past weekend I took eight students to State Speech. While I watched rounds, coached kids and waited for results, I was reminded that speech--like reading and writing--is a completely subjective endeavor. An exact set of standards does not exist for any of the above activities. Writers cannot shoot the most baskets to secure a publishing contract, just like speakers cannot run the fastest race to win a first place medal.

Instead, they must strive to best capture the readers--and judges--attention through style, voice, characterizations and story development. Speakers and writers alike must connect on a personal level with their audiences. And not a single part of this can be judged with any certainty.

To make it to State, our speakers had to get past the gatekeepers of Sub-Sections and Sections. They had to withstand the scrutiny of the more conservative, traditional judges in our tiny corner of the state to reach the more liberal and forward thinking judges from the bigger communities.

Right or wrong, this is the process. As coaches, we know that going in. An edgy piece that is perfect State material may suffer at the more conservative levels by pushing the comfort zones of the judges. Certain themes are nearly taboo in our little burgs while a broader and more accepting approach can be found elsewhere. For instance, suicide was a risky topic for one of our duos, while homosexuality and strong sexual innuendos from lesser conservative schools made our suicide pact look tame.

Some of our speechies made a conscious decision to play the odds. They prepared edgier pieces in hopes of squeaking by the conservative gatekeepers in order to impress the more liberal State audience. It paid off. While they just managed to eke out a third place in Sub-Sections, there stronger piece and non-traditional performance (for our neck of the woods) made them true contenders at the State level where they pulled the best score in one of their three rounds, beating out four of the finalists in a head-to-head showdown.

Another duo team from our Section took a more conservative approach, and while their traditional performance earned them a first at Sections, they were dead last in every round at State. They gambled the other way and didn't quite get their foot in the gate.

Both teams were polished, professional and in the top twenty-four in the state. One held back, while the other pushed the forward. Neither ultimately made it to the final round. However, the risk-takers were one point away from doing so. Next year, they will take what they learned from this experience and use it to better their chances of medaling.

Writing is no different.

Even as the general audience may seem more open to reading risky material, the gate keepers are chaining the doors. Publishing is a business and it effects our passion. Our ability to publish traditionally hinges on the whims of judges who may be more conservative than we would like.

As I continue my writing journey, I've come to realize several truths: nobody will ever write the perfect book, and gate keepers will always exist. They may evolve over time, but they will always play an integral part in the success or failure of certain written works.

In speech, it used to be against the rules to touch the floor with anything other than your feet. This year, I personally saw several speakers on their knees, doing somersaults or brushing their hands against the stage. Judges opposed to change likely gave these speakers lower scores based on their personal preferences and past tradition. It happens. It's life. It's normal. In years to come, these same judges will likely wonder why we ever had such a foolishly prohibitive rule.

Publishing is changing. Reader tastes are changing. Even writing styles and themes come and go almost overnight. What remains the same--and will forever--is that people will always read, people will always write and there will always be gatekeepers in some form or another.

Even with self-publishing, gatekeepers exist. They are, quite simply, the readers who refuse to part with their hard earned dollars for certain books. They are the bloggers who inform other potential readers of books they love to hate. They are the people we must walk past if we are to get our writing into the hands of our readers.

While I don't believe we have to write to please the gatekeepers, I firmly believe we need to understand the nuances and the power and the reasons behind their existence. We must acknowledge that on some level, the goal of publishing is to reach as wide an audience as we can within our genre, age group or niche. To do this, we absolutely must acknowledge that our writing is judged and can either earn a place on stage or that it will fall short and we will be left clapping in the wings for those successful enough to balance the fine line between stepping out of the box and capitulating to the narrow constraints of current reading standards, tastes and expectations.

This is true regardless of how we reach publication.

Who are the gatekeepers in your writing world, and how do they impact your writing journey? Do you subject yourself to balancing their wishes with your ideals, or do you simply write--gatekeepers be damned? How has your method worked out so far?

Curious minds want to know.

Cat Woods balances writing, speech coaching and mothering to the best of her ability--always hoping to impress a gatekeeper or two along the way. Her short stories can be found in Spring Fevers and The Fall, with another coming out in the Summer's Edge anthology this June. She also blogs at Words from the Woods.

1 comment:

Jemi Fraser said...

Great post, Cat. I coach my students in speech as well and it is a challenge to help them get past the various levels/styles of gatekeepers.