Sunday, February 27, 2011


Taste is something that most people think is completely personal and unchangeable, but that is not true, if you are willing to learn. Taste, as I’m using the term, is what allows you to make the right choices to produce the kind of writing for the category that you want to join. There are many categories of taste, but for writing purposes people are mainly interested in two obvious ones: taste for writing that gets published, taste for writing that doesn't. Most people who have taste in the latter category are wedded their own writing or their friends', and are happy with it, or not unhappy enough to change. Changing is always uncomfortable because it requires some ego to be destroyed. It is much easier to live with righteous outrage at the "bad" writing that gets published and sold in quantity.

Of course, “bad” writing often sells, not because it’s bad, but because of popular ideas, psychological trends, and human stories that are emotionally enthralling. Readers who are not schooled in writing do not care about a lack of style, depth, universality—or even symbolism! Face it, the majority of readers are not academics or writers and buy what they enjoy, rather than what might be lasting. For this reason, there is a subcategory of "publishable taste," which is the taste to be able to create popular escapist literature, whether escaping into romance, crime, or knowledge, a category that many people would like to acquire the taste to produce. James W. Hall happens to have a book coming out this summer that will explain in depth how to develop this taste, in other words how to write a bestseller. If that is your goal, your first tip on developing taste is to get the book. I can’t wait to get mine.

I also have another book recommendation, this one for developing taste in words, images, and sentences, the basic level that also must be addressed. Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose, will help you to acquire taste on the literary level that will have positive affects on any kind of writing you choose.

Obviously, you should also be reading the kind of literature that you intend to write. If this does not come naturally, then maybe you’re on the wrong track. Or it’s possible that your chosen literature is out of your writing range. I, for example, having started my life as an English major, continued with a Master's Degree in English, and on to teaching English. With this background, my first taste was developed toward the classics. I got nowhere with that taste in my own writing since I didn’t have the profound thoughts necessary to be able to create classic literature. Of course, I was missing the skills to write fiction of any kind at that point, too, only looking from the outside in, rather than seeing the writing from the author's viewpoint. I went on to learn technique while getting my MFA in Creative Writing at Florida International University, and during that time I also developed the knowledge of and taste for noir literature, mainly from studying the writing of James M. Cain. This is where I managed to hone my taste successfully to get published. The mix of sex and crime was something that clicked for me. My first novel, Miami Purity, has been called a noir classic, so what more can I ask?

Now, however, I am trying to expand into the popular world of animal literature. I have immersed myself in animal writing over the past five years, reading fiction, non-fiction, academic animal rights treatises, and even a little animal fantasy. Books such as Seabiscuit, The Life of Pi, and Water For Elephants have become my bibles. I analyze and learn, but I also enjoy my new category. I am enthralled by stories involving animals, so if I am not able to develop the taste required to write a “popular” book, what have I lost?

So this is my general tip. Let your taste develop through your reading. Consciously work on it. And don’t be afraid to give up old feelings and move on. Aging requires it!

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