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Friday, September 10, 2010

I'm a Closet Literary Writer

Of course, I didn't say I was any good at it. But I do love to write for the sounds the words and sentences make. For the comfort the rhythm instills in me as I write. For that buoyancy that makes me feel like I'm floating and flying at the same time. To blend one word to the next, one sentence to the next, one paragraph to the next, one page to the next - as if throughout all time that particular structure of words combined with my unique style of writing were always intended to be together.

And at the end of my writing journey, I've lightened something dark inside me - or maybe darkened something light - while the reader analyzes a question in a way they never thought they would.

This poses a bit of internal conlict for me because I am also a minimalist thanks to my Christian Writers Guild training. Get to the message in as few words as possible. It's memorable. It's tight. It's active. And most importantly, it keeps the reader turning pages. And when the underlying theme of your message, whether symbolic or literal, is wholly Christian, you want to keep the reader turning pages. This would be called popular fiction.

Before we move on, I found these excellent descriptions of literary and popular fiction on Shelly Thacker Meinhardt's Web page:

"There are two kinds of fiction in today's market. Literary fiction is the fiction of ideas. Its primary purpose is to evoke thought. The writer's goal is self-expression. Any consideration of the reader—if one exists at all—is purely secondary.

"Popular fiction is the fiction of emotion. Its primary purpose is to evoke feelings. The writer's goal is to entertain the reader. Any consideration of self-expression—if one exists at all—is purely secondary.

"Now, hold the hate mail. I'm not saying that you can't express yourself in a romance or mystery or science-fiction novel, or that literary fiction can't be entertaining, or that popular fiction can't be thought-provoking. We can all name novels that do it all. My point is, before you sit down to write your book—and more importantly, before you try to market it—you had better be sure exactly which kind of fiction it is you're writing."

So when you write literary fiction, you're writing for yourself, and if someone else can relate to it... well, bonus, because you might actually be able to sell it. When you write popular fiction, you're writing for your reader, and if you can relate to it... well, bonus, because you might actually enjoy writing it.

I realize it's not quite that simplistic, but I do think that those who are really great writers have an element of both the literary and the popular forms of fiction inside them. They know how to create beautiful forms of expression in a way that almost anyone can relate to. And in the process, the writer has bettered something inside themselves, and given their reader an experience they will never forget.

Here are two examples from my own writing. The first would probably be considered literary, and a popular-fiction editor would likely strip it from my story altogether telling me to get to the point, get to the action, cut the fluff. The second would be considered popular, and a literary editor would... I don't know... laugh at it's simplicity, maybe.

Literary example from: Death of a Whippoorwill (this is an excerpt from a 1,500-word story which received an honorable mention in the 2009 Silver Quill Best Short Fiction Contest)

In the distance I see the bridge and our cabin just beyond. The river rumbles outside my passenger window, oblivious to the fact that I have come here to die. If the river only knew the reason I chose this place is because of the peace that river offers, it might respond with more respect – stilling itself in honor as I pass by. The fish, if they knew, might gather along the banks in a show of appreciation that I always threw them back. The dozens of turtles I’ve moved off this tiny river road over the years might stretch their necks out of their shells and, with tears in their eyes, mouth a little prayer to thank me. But no, this river does not love me like I love it. And yet, it does. I will listen to this river’s voice in my last days, and its voice will deliver me home.

Popular example from: Going Up (this is an excerpt from a story which won 1st place in the August 2009 Christian Writers Guild Forum Armadillo Writing Contest)

After the funeral service, I sprinted to catch the train. I was happy to see two trains in the station, and by habit I knew which to board. A small man, in a pin-striped suit and wearing a Stetson, an oddly successful coordination, stood at ease in the threshold.

"Going up?” he said.


“Going up?”

I took a step back on to the platform and looked around. "Am I on the right train?”

“If you’re on this train, you’re on the right train, Ma’am. We’re going up.” He grinned and gave me two thumbs-up.

“Oh. Uptown. Yes, I am going up.” I rushed to the back of the train and found a seat. I hoped the crazy man wouldn’t sit near me when he finished tending the doors.

In the other train, I saw a crowd of people celebrating. Early afternoon seemed an odd time of day for a party. Of course, I’d just come from a funeral. Watching strangers enjoy life after I attended a funeral was discomforting.

I saw the crazy man approaching and I reached for my bag, hoping that pulling out my laptop would keep him from sitting close. Where is my bag? In a panic, I searched around my seat.

“Ma’am, are you okay?”

“Yes, I seem to have misplaced something.”

“You can’t misplace things on this train, Ma’am.”

Can you see the difference? Example two, popular, jumps right into the action and keeps it moving, omitting anything that would slow it down. And there's something strange going on that hopefully hooks the reader and makes them want to keep reading. Example one, literary, lingers for a bit, experiments with word usage to enhance a poetic sounding flow, and savors the moment (at least that's how it sounded in my head).

As I wrote the opening paragraph to Death of a Whippoorwill, I was fully writing for myself. I didn't care if anyone else liked it or not - it just felt darn good to write it. And if anyone else did read it, I hoped it would make them think, like it made me think. When I was writing the opening scene of Going Up, I was fully writing for the reader. I had a message to share, and with each sentence I wrote, I analyzed how my reader might respond. And at the end (not posted here), a big emotional punch and an unpredictable twist. I thoroughly enjoyed writing both stories.

So I guess that's what it comes down to. Enjoy what you write, and everything else will fall into place.

If you are a fiction writer, do you lean more toward literary or popular writing? Can you find both literary and popular examples in your own writing? Would you rather read literary fiction or popular fiction?


  1. Brock S. Henning said...

    I like your examples Karen! Makes a clear distinction.

    I enjoy writing both literary and popular (just short stories right now). I've leaned more toward literary over the years, but I'm experimenting more with the popular side. I love poetry, so that's probably where the literary bent comes from.

    As far as reading, I enjoy both. At this 'early' stage with my writing, I try to read just about everything to identify my own strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

    Thanks for this post!

  2. Melissa said...

    Well, you better just send me the rest of Going Up 'cause you got me hook, line and sinker.

    I must confess that as addicted as I am to reading, I'm definately a popular fiction girls. Amazingly, literature was NEVER my strong suit in school (flunked it 2x in college) because I'm not one who can easily read between the lines.

    Miss you!

  3. Karen said...

    I'll send it to you, Melissa. I know you favor literal stories over symbolic, and this one is heavily symbolic and a bit supernatural, but I hope you like it despite that. :)

    I was inspired to write it after reading C.S. Lewis's THE GREAT DIVORCE, so if you've read that, you might understand my mindset.

  4. Karen said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
  5. Karen said...

    I wrote this in a blog last October and for some reason it came to mind (I think it is an excellent example of combining elements of both forms of fiction writing):

    John Fox Jr. -- opening paragraph from "The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come":

    "The days of that April had been days of mist and rain. Sometimes, for hours, there would come a miracle of blue sky, white cloud, and yellow light, but always between dark and dark the rain would fall and the mist creep up the mountains and steam from the tops -- only to roll together from either range, drip back into the valleys, and lift, straightway, as mist again. So that, all the while Nature was trying to give lustier life to every living thing in the lowland Bluegrass, all the while a gaunt skeleton was stalking down the Cumberland -- tapping with fleshless knuckles, now at some unlovely cottage of faded white and green, and now at a log cabin, stark and gray."

    Ahhh... as I stand between the mountain ranges in the lifting mist and steam, I relax but only for a moment as the author shatters my calm with the sense of brewing conflict.

    Find the complete post BEWARE OF THE WRITER WHO ISN'T WRITING at

  6. Smile Awhile said...

    You are such an entertaining writer that I don't give much thought to how long it's been between the postings. I'm always so happy to see, yet another 'something' to read.

    I can't make up my mind whether I like literary or popular, it only needs to ping slightly on any chord within my soul. Would it be right to call someone an eclectic reader/writer?

  7. Talkin' Texan said...

    Very good post and you made the distinction very clear. I WISH I could write fiction. I can't get my mind to break out of the real world for more than a minute. And when I try to put that fictional minute's worth of thought on paper, it just sounds dumb!
    Yeah I'm a dull person. lol

  8. warrenjc said...

    Hi Karen,

    Good stuff. Who says you aren't good at it? Sounded very good to me. (I'm a little self-critical also. LOL)

    To me, good fiction is character-driven, which would, again, to me, point to the popular style of writing.

    I do not write fiction but nonfiction, but nonetheless use fiction style to present anecdotes to which the reader can relate. If the reader cannot relate, you've lost them. The manual calls it, "Making eye contact."

    Like you, am not saying that literary style is not good but popular (I think), lends itself to character-driven writing easier.

    I agree with your aspect of text that flows. I work hard at that.

    Good job Karen. Keep writing sister. How's school going for you. I am a graduate of the Journeyman level. Right now, can't afford to go to Craftsman's level. Maybe later.