The question was: ‘Are some writers more concerned about formulaic content at the expense of quality’?
It’s a subject that I have spent a lot of time discussing with friends over the years, so here are my views on the subject.
The New Oxford Dictionary states that formulaic means: ‘produced in accordance with a slavishly followed rule or style; predictable’. I also looked up ‘formula’ and came up with words such as: ‘rules’, ‘technique’, ‘convention’, ‘principles’.
Before I do launch into one of my pet topics, I’d just like to make clear that I am not talking about any particular fandom or writer/s, or indeed personal experience from working with editors. This is purely from a reading fanfic perspective. In addition, to save me from constantly writing ‘in my opinion’, it should be taken as read that this is what it is - only my opinion. YMMV.
The short answer to the question is yes. I believe that some people place too great an importance on what I’d call ‘the little things’: the technicalities, and less stress on ‘the important things’: the content of the story, the idea, the concept, the emotions, the overall final result.
I should like to, at this point, stress that I am not in any way advocating poor writing. I believe firmly that stories should, at the very least, have a spell checker run over them before being submitted to a zine/uploaded to the web. It has to be said that spell checkers, wonderful as they are, do not pick up every little thing, e.g. for/fro or form/from or collage/college, but they will pick up most things.
I have read stories that are technically perfect. However, I am not that sure that I will read those stories again, because the focus is on the technical side, rather than on the story itself. The emphasis appears to be on ensuring that split infinitives are not used (not that that is a real no-no anymore); or sentences do not end with a preposition; or that nouns, adjectives, adverbs etc. are all in the correct place. In one respect this is wonderful, however, some of these stories (not all I hasten to add) are dull. They seem to lack quality, emotion, and content. The writers do seem to have been more focussed on the rules, or in showing how clever they are, than on the story.
It is not clear whether it is the writer personally who causes this lack of emotion, or the editor/beta reader. I firmly believe there is a difference between good, solid, in-depth editing, and over editing. I know that some people will say that a story can’t be over edited, but I disagree. I have read zines where the same person could have written all the stories, because the style, tone, etc. is the same throughout. All the individuality and passion has been leached out of the stories, and it would seem, in these cases, that it is the editor who is over editing.
Then there’s the POV issue: single, alternative, first person, third person, omniscient or even slipped? Am I the only person who occasionally tires of reading story after story where it is told entirely from one point of view, or even alternative points of view? Am I the only person who is screaming, ‘but I don’t want to know what Bodie thinks Doyle is thinking, I want, need even, to KNOW what Doyle is thinking’? I sometimes tire of reading the convoluted way the author gets around the fact that ideally we should be inside the other person’s head.
Is changing POV mid-scene so dreadful, so heinous, that it must be avoided at all costs, even the cost of quality? This, of course, assumes that most people notice slipped POV. These days I notice a change of POV a lot more often than I used to do. However, it has never bothered me, never thrown me out of the story, which I know is one of the main complaints. Having said that, I have become so ‘bound’ by the ‘thou shalt not change POV’ rule, that on a few occasions recently when I’ve been reading a story for someone who has asked for my opinion, I’ve found myself telling them about the changed POV. Always adding that ‘it doesn’t bother me, but….’
Even writing books/mainstream writers can’t agree over this issue. Some will agree that you should never change POV mid-scene, not under any circumstances. Others say that it’s fine to do so if a) it’s essential and b) the writer makes it clear that the POV has changed.
I know there are people out there (including a couple of my close fandom friends) for whom POV and grammatical errors is an issue. They find that they are thrown so far out of the story, or so irritated by errors, that they have to give up reading it. I can understand this both intellectually and emotionally, as there are things that do the same to me - but those tend to be character issues, a specific squick, a major blatant inconsistency, for example.
Some of the best fandom writers (and here I’m not just going for my favourites, but writers at whose feet some people worship) sometimes have a slipped POV in their stories. Indeed, with older stories it clearly wasn’t considered an issue, because a number of stories moved about all over the place - even into animals’ heads!
Moreover, whilst we’re on the subject of some of the best fandom writers, let’s not forget that some of the best-known, award winning, well respected mainstream writers who bounce their POV around in the same scene. I’m not just talking about the older writers; I’m talking about modern day writers. Why can they do it, but fanfic writers can’t?
I am not saying that every story that has grammatical errors, slipped POV and other technical problems are good stories, not at all. Some are; some are not. Just as some formulaically perfect stories are good, and some are not so good.
I know that there are people who say that a story cannot be a good story if it contains errors/breaking of rules. I disagree. I believe story can be good, can be a quality story, and still contain the odd error or breaking of rules (deliberate or otherwise).
Of course, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are such subjective terms and mean different things to different people, thus it is difficult to quantify and qualify exactly what is meant by a good story. I personally would hesitate to use the term ‘bad’ about any story. I firmly believe that every story has some merit, and will mean something to the person who has written it. Thus, rather than ‘bad’, I’d say ‘not to my taste’.
We also have to remember that rules are constantly changing, and that things that were not acceptable a few years ago, such as a split infinitive, or ending a sentence with a preposition are now becoming acceptable. They are even becoming acceptable in the in the formal letters of the business world, something I know a considerable number of people rue tremendously.
Other rules are even less definite. I was discussing one such uncertainly with gilda_elise recently. The issue was: do you or do you not capitalise ‘sir’ in any other place except for at the beginning of a sentence? Both of us have been edited both ways (i.e. one editor will capitalise it, whilst another won’t). It can be argued that it seems logical to capitalise it; after all, it’s being used in place of a name, which would be capitalised. ‘Yes, Mr. Waverly’, for example, thus logic would say that it should be, ‘Yes, Sir’? Even if we say that ‘sir’ is a title rather than a name, we’d also say ‘Yes, Mother’, so if we replace ‘mother’ with ‘sir’, shouldn’t we capitalise it? The same applies to nicknames and terms of endearment. For example, we capitalise ‘Goldilocks’ and ‘Sherlock’ (probably because they are proper names), and yet when it comes to ‘sunshine’, which is being used in the same way as ‘Goldilocks’ and ‘Sherlock’, once again the jury is out on whether or not to capitalise it.
How about should we left align, rather than indent, the first paragraph of every section in a story? Academic writing and most mainstream novels would say ‘yes’; but not all editors do. Are they wrong? What about people who deliberately break the rules because they like the way the sentence flows? Why is this so different, so acceptable, and yet the non-deliberate is not acceptable?
To end, I reiterate that I am NOT advocating sloppy writing, not at all. It’s just that for me the emotion of the story, and obvious love for and of the characters, are more important than the technically perfect, the formulaic content.