Why Paint-by-Number Writing Never Works

Before I began putting my stories down on paper, I absolutely loved to spend long hours drawing and painting. Since both my great-grandmother and my uncle were talented amateur painters, my parents had some inkling how to encourage me. So from an early age, there were pads of paper, watercolors, brushes and even a couple of art lessons and an easel.

Then they clapped onto the idea of buying me some of those nifty new paint by numbers that were still quite popular in the early Seventies. The idea, I'm sure, was that ladling the "correct" colors into the numbered spaces would not only making painting a "masterpiece" easy, but would teach the child (or adult) creativity.

I can't speak for anyone else, but I found them horribly disappointing. The end result looked flat and lifeless, and I didn't get any real satisfaction from the dumbed-down task of coloring in someone else's drawing with someone else's choices.

Paint-by-number writing, where writers attempt to blindly follow a formula for creating marketable fiction (often genre fiction) without making it their own, doesn't work any better. Without creative choices, without that most important, least-quantifiable ingredient, love, swirled into the mix, the work comes out as flat, lifeless, and in many cases condescending as the worst of the boxed art kits. The reading audience instinctively knows when it is being talked down to, and agents and editors are particularly good at sniffing out this sin... and issuing lightning-swift rejections.

But a writer aiming for a particular marketing niche can go too far with creative choices -- so far that the painting spills far beyond the frame. That's why it's so important to read, read, read recent examples of the type of book you're writing. If you don't, you'll fail to absorb the basic audience expectations. You can bend, tweak, twist, and play with these parameters, but ignore them at your own risk.

So if you're writing toward a particular market, try to ferret out the boundaries. But paint with those distinctive colors that only you bring to the process, and don't be afraid to bump playfully, joyfully, or even defiantly against the borders of your frame.


Marsha Sigman said…
Great advice!
Anonymous said…
Great post, Colleen. My only problem is that I have a hard time conforming to genre! I never could put the right color in the right places on those PBNs! I always wanted to see what it would look like if I played with the colors.

Jo Anne said…
Probably not a shocker to you, Colleen, that I've always 'painted' outside the lines. That little boundary problem of mine. Still trying to find the balance of conformity and creativity. Great post....
Yes, it's the balance that is important. I think Joni hit the nail on the head when she was writing Bald in the Land of Big Hair and said it was the book she was looking for in that self-help/cancer survivor memoir genre that she couldn't find.

I guess my problem is that I really don't know what kind of book I'm writing. I know it's deep and nuanced, psychological, and I know it's Gothic, but there are very few examples of this type of book currently. The only thing that comes remotely close is Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. When I read the first chapter of that novel, I leapt off my chair, because it seemed like someone was finally writing in the space I'm writing in. But I haven't found many other books like that, so I feel like I'm pretty much on my own. But as my previous post said, I can't let that stop me. I just have to do what feels right to me, and if in the end it's not salable, then I'll just have to find some other way to get it out there.
Thanks for stopping by, everyone!

I think one of the great challenges of writing mainstream is becoming your own brand beyond the confines of a discrete genre. The rewards are often greater if you're successful, but it's so challenging to carve out a space of your own in the book world.

Keep after it, though. Your book sounds like something I'd love to read.
Suzan Harden said…
*sigh* It's so hard to carve out your own space, especially when it's not paint I spill but blood and entrails.
Blood and entrails... Snort!

I didn't necessarily mean you should carve your niche in human flesh, but it's that's workin' for you, Suzan, go for it. ;)

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