The happy crappy ending: Or can you afford to write what you want?

Throwing Clay Shadows by Thea Atkinson

Every time someone that I know asks me what type of stuff I write, I end up floundering for a description. I like to call myself psychological thriller with literary leanings, but deep down in my heart I know that’s not quite true. Psychological is supposed to be more exciting edge-of-your-seat kind of writing than tortured-soul-tries-to-find-its-way-to-the-light. If I was truly literary, I’d have some beautiful turns of phrase. I’d have breathtakingly meaningful analogy and metaphor. I’d have some deeper meaning that fit the theme to a T. When I think literary, I think Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, and Barbara Kingsolver. There’s enviable depth to all of those stories they pen.

In truth, all of these writers, famous for their beautiful rendition of literary, have some deeper value within their prose that enables them to stick closely to the intent of what they were trying to do in the first place. I don’t think Alice Munro decides anymore whether or not she will let a character live or die, she just lets the character be, trusting in her skill to bring that character to the climax and resolution that’s necessary. I imagine Margaret Atwood might still give some consideration to genre but only fleetingly because I’ve listened to her interviews and she is a woman of strength and determination and commitment and will write what she wants to write and will let the characters be what they want to be regardless of whether the rest of the world sees it as something that has mass appeal.

They can afford to write dark, light, heavy, fluffy, stinkers, or masterpieces because they are…well, they are who they are and because they’ve proven over their careers that they are darned good at what they do. I think at one time they might have thought about all those things like genre and market and sales, but I somehow think that’s behind them. I think at this stage, they might even be doing all that by virtue of  ‘writer muscle memory.’

English: Margaret Atwood - Munich 19.10.2009 D...

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As a nobody, I really shouldn’t be able to afford to do that; you know, write what I want without consideration of target. And yet as an independent author, perhaps that’s what enables me to stick to my vision. I don’t write chick lit. I don’t write romance or fantasy. I don’t even write literary, if I really defined term the way it’s meant to be defined.

The truth is, I write what I write. If someone who has read me can come up with a description or a genre that fits, I’d be happy to hear it because I’m still floundering. The other truth is that no matter what the genre is that I think I’m writing in at the time, there’s always some kernel of darkness within. And that always changes it: imagine writing about a youth in ancient Egypt trying to find his place in the world– you would suppose it’s aimed for the young adult historical market, but if you realize that I’ve put in a bit about a priest who dips a little too intimately into the priest-in-training pool, you’d realize why I can’t market Formed of Clay to young adults. (ahuh.)

So yes, I write dark sometimes. Well, all the time. It’s not all dark, but you can bet there’s some dark corner in there somewhere. I don’t consider genre before I write. I just write what I want to. I think that handicaps me, but I also think it frees me as a writer to find pleasure in what I’m doing. If it doesn’t sell, I have no one to blame but myself. And to be honest, I do blame myself quite a bit. grin.

I wrote a very large novel a few years ago that was really three books in one. To me, it just fit that the three stories over three different time frames and places in the globe had something to do with each other. I couldn’t get interest in that book to save my soul.

When I decided to self publish to the digital world, I split that book into three. Formed of Clay became a nice little novella and Throwing Clay Shadows became a novel that stood on its own. The last one is still in edit stages. In its original incarnation, Throwing Clay Shadows was very much a downer book. Everyone died in the end. Kind of like Shakespeare. But then to liken myself to Shakespeare would be to throw myself back into that literary description that I’m unworthy of.

So who am I? Certainly not anyone who could write what she wants and then sell what she wants. That’s the key. I can write whatever I want for as long as I want to do it, but if I ever want to sell it, I have to consider the people who will buy. And so I changed the ending to Throwing Clay Shadows to something that I would call: happy.

Yet something inside of me squirmed when I did it.

Not because I don’t like happy endings, but because I just didn’t think it was the right ending. I felt like it was a cop-out.

And you know what? That book doesn’t sell any better or any worse than any of my other novels, despite me putting in a happy ending that would appeal to more readers.

I think there’s a lesson there somewhere, but I’ll be daggoned if I can put my finger on it. I think it might be just a little too shadowed even for me.

I welcome you downloading Throwing Clay Shadows and tell me if I did the right thing.


Thea Atkinson is a writer of character driven fiction.

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10 comments on “The happy crappy ending: Or can you afford to write what you want?
  1. Thea, you bring up some very interesting points and I say write what you want, what your heart desires to say, but the one thing the authors you mentioned — Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood — is they are masters of their craft. I’ll read about just about any topic, as long as it is well-crafted. In that vein, that’s how you make the market for your book. If you can create something that is “unputdownable” no matter the subject matter (sorry) then your readers will find it. Best of luck to you.

  2. Sheila Hurst says:

    If we’re not able to write what we want, I think sooner or later we’d have to give up because it just wouldn’t be fun anymore

  3. If you are an artist, Thea, you cannot worry about what the market demands. You have to write the story, and if it doesn’t have a Hollywood happy ending, it doesn’t. Nothing you can do about that.

    Don’t worry about genre. For my book, I broke every rule of the genre. But it’s true to the story.

  4. dlmorrese says:

    Personally, I think you should write what you like. I like positive fiction, specifically positive speculative fiction. I wouldn’t enjoy writing dark fiction. Guns, blood, vampires, zombies, and apocalyptic nightmare worlds just aren’t my thing. But I’m not doing it as a source of income and I never expect anything I do to be a bestseller. That’s not important to me. The only thing that matters is writing a story I like and can be proud to see my name on. So, yes, mine have happy endings – or, in the case of my first book, a partial ending because the story concludes in the second one. 😉

    • Huzzah! I agree; if it’s income driven, you do have to consider market just like with nonfic. I wrote nonfic for long enough, worrying about market and target that I want my fiction to please me. And usually it does.

  5. Diane Tibert says:

    I believe you must write the book as your heart desires and forget about what others might think. It’s like that saying: dance like nobody’s watching. Well, write like nobody’s reading. I heard that saying many years ago at a creative writing course and I haven’t forgotten it. Sometimes I have to force myself to forget about what others will think when they read it, in fact, forget that anyone will read it, and just write. If the book feels right to you then let it be. You won’t please everyone — nobody does — but you’ll have stayed true to yourself.

    As a self-published author you have the power to write like nobody’s reading. I say go for it. Let the readers decide if they like it or not. The ones which do will be back for more.

  6. daleamidei says:

    Light and dark voices pass through every writer’s head, Thea. We should not be arrogant enough to think that every inspiration is ours, light or dark, and act accordingly. In the end, your title was what it was always meant to be. If someone else has found it edifying, you have done your part.

  7. glad to hear you chime in Mira. I agree, obviously. grin. But you say it far more eloquently

  8. This is a brilliant article, Thea

    I’m sure that many writers are battling the very same dilemma. In my opinion, there’s no right or wrong answer, only the answer that leaves you feel right. The blood and tears that go into writing a book demand that we stay true to ourselves. That’s the only way to secure at least one reward.

    Reaching the right readership is quite a different matter.

    Personally, I can see no attraction in appealing to a kind of readership that I’ve never wanted.

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