Writing to be Read

I’m not really continuing with variations on a theme, but I kind of am.

Look, it’s very easy to think of what a writer does as a lecturer’s podium to a captive audience.  Maybe even at one time, long ago, it was so. Maybe at one time there was such a respect for or interest or simply a limited supply of books in a certain field that everyone read everything that was published, even if the writer had, in the past, done things to disappoint them.

If that time ever existed, it is not now.

Look, I come from a place and time where I knew true boredom.  How true? Well, the big entertainment was sitting on the stoop (this being Portugal, it was often chairs brought from inside and set on a narrow strip between the house wall and the city) and watching people pass by.  That’s what almost everyone did on Sunday.

And here people are going to wax nostalgic — they do even there — for such a day.  If I had dime for, every time we’ve been looking for a house since the 80s, how many times some new development sells itself as having generous porches, to encourage community bonding or some such, I’d be a very rich woman.

We have yet to buy in one of those developments, partly because you know and I know those spacious porches will be either unused or used by someone busily working on a laptop.  (And most of those people prefer a little more shade and privacy.)  There is a reason for that.  Several.  In Portugal the death of the seat-on-the-stoop set first came with radio, but the final quietus was administered by television.  Now with computers they’re like the US and most of their life is online.

However in those long Sundays — or evenings, particularly in summer — when anything, anything would do to relieve boredom, I’d read things I wasn’t particularly fond of and which you now couldn’t pay me to read (mostly romances, a lot of it featuring bullfighters, but also a lot of 19th century novels.)

In those circumstances, writers might have more leeway to preach in a dry and uninteresting way, they might have more leeway to do things that annoy the reader.  When you’re desperate, you’ll read ANYTHING.

Nowadays?  My turnaround on a book is about 5 pages.  If you haven’t grabbed me by then, I have other ebooks, other stuff to do, things that need to get read for research, and always friends to chat with at the other end of the private message program.  And heck, I’m not that wired.  I have friends who LIVE on their phone.

There is a risk to thinking that readers are your captive audience and simply have to take what you dish out.  There is a risk, even, if you think you’re on the side of angels and doing it for the readers’ own good, to “raise their consciousness” or whatever.

Since about WWI or so, there has been a tendency to nostalgie the la boue.  That is, there has been a tendency to focus on the worst, on the dirtiest, to create your story around despicable characters.  Maybe it was a natural movement caused by the disillusionment in the aftermath of the European avatar.  Or maybe it was the intellectuals, finally having attained a life in which they really need have no contact with real difficulties or real work, becoming fascinated by lowlives and criminals.

These were always fascinating to a point, of course, but in older works often used as moral lesson and/or comic relief.  Now they seemed to be the only suitable subject for books.

There is quite a bit of this going on still — it’s ingrained into the “literary” attitudes.  Even in our field, there is a tendency to write as though no one is clean, no one is good, no one does things for others.  Oh, granted, not universal, but what the intellectuals in our field judge worthy is more often than not tainted with nostalgie de la boue.

The problem with this is that it’s not a taste shared by the vast majority of potential readers.

Some years ago, a friend of mine had to take a manual-labor job, working mostly with people who were “largely uneducated” you know, close to finishing high school but not quite? (She needed a night job.)

So — she found two very surprising things: first, almost all of them read during breaks.  This was probably a function of their being at a time most of their contacts were asleep and there was nothing good on TV.  Maybe.  Anyway, they read.  And she started talking to them about what they read.

My friend is a big Bujold fan.  She was shocked to find these people found the idea of less than absolutely hale character disgusting.  She told me “they don’t want to read about anyone deformed or anyone sickly or anyone old.  They mostly read about rich people who are young and living lives of luxury.  They might have problems, or murders, but while reading the character, the reader gets to escape to that environment.”

Am I saying that’s what we should write about?  Oh, heck no, though I now understand the massive popularity of romances and of what I call rich-and-famous thrillers. They are wonderful for providing that escape.

However note that I read some romance and not much of the rich and famous thrillers.  I suspect there is a continuum.  But I also suspect the vast majority of the readers is right there, at that place.  You can, of course, get away with writing other things and other places and other times.

You can even go massive with stuff that’s not about the young and well to do.  Though in many of those cases it took a huge amount of promotion, promotion that publishers are less and less able to do.

Also, you don’t NEED to go massive to do well in indie.  You can cater to other tastes.  You can have older or struggling characters.

But if it’s a continuum, imagine a line.  On your left hand of the line, there’s a huge circle where the most readership lives.  On your right hand (non political continuum, obviously) there’s a tiny circle, the people who want to read about dirty deeds done by dirty men who are never punished, in an environment of despair and misery.

Every step you take along that point makes it a smaller audience you’ll attract.  Now with plenty of publicity, if you attract everyone on the little dot, you’ll still be a multimillionaire.  Which creates the illusion that’s where the most of the public is.  It’s an illusion.

At the same time, as I found from my fanfic writing — mostly Austen — everytime you make your book more difficult, even justifiedly, you’re going to lose audience.  You’d think that in the fanfic group for a regency novelist, the historicals would be the most popular, right?  You’d be wrong.  Contemporaries are more accessible, to most people, and were therefore by far and away the most popular.  The same for more accessible and telegraphed plots vs. the ones that brought about a longer payoff. The further from “normal” you go, the harder it is to get followers.

This is the important thing: you can rage.  You can say it is wrong.  You can tell the public their taste sucks.  Sometimes (sometimes) I’ll even agree with you.  But it doesn’t matter.

You don’t have a lectern or a podium with a captive audience who has to read you.  You have a little stall in the market, or in my case a peddler’s cart.  If your merchandise doesn’t attract the reader, they won’t buy.  If they buy and you disappoint them?  They won’t buy again.

You’re not in a position of power here.  This is not school.  You’re not tenured.  Sure, if you get in good with a house, you can probably keep selling to them, if you don’t crash too badly, but that’s a hand to mouth, uncertain existence.  In the end, if you want to sell?  And keep selling?  And have a cut of indie publishing, too?

You write for your public.  This doesn’t mean you don’t write what you want to, just that you have to figure out how to present it and make it attractive.

But that you have to do, because you’re a writer.  Your craft is to make stories for sale.  Writing is done to be read.  And the best way to be read is to sell far and wide.

And that’s what you should remember when you’re working.  You are a merchant, and if you’re not bought you’ll fail.

81 Comments

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81 responses to “Writing to be Read

  1. Or to put it another way, you’ll find more readers by giving them someone to look up to rather than someone to look down on.

  2. TRX

    >>“they don’t want to read about anyone deformed or anyone sickly or anyone old. They mostly read about rich people who are young and living lives of luxury.

    That explains soap operas nicely.

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      The last time I saw soap operas, I got the idea that the “rich people” were stupid. So the audience may want to see “rich people” who are dumber than them. [Sad Smile]

      • I have the strong impression that stupid is a necessity due to the structure of the telenovela. The plot twists must be repetitive and straightforward enough that anyone who misses episodes due to an extra shift, or ninos enfermos, or can only listen with half an ear while they do the ironing, or only get 15 minutes of break to catch part of each episode, can still follow along.

        Porque they are not made for the netflix world of binge viewing, pero el mundo del trabajo.

        …y necesito mas cafe, porque no ingles. Lo siento.

        ….Seeeeeeeeeeeeesos….

        • The Other Sean

          Help! My universal translator seems to be on the fritz. It keeps switching between English and Spanish. What do I do? 🙂

          • She had an attack of her Venezuelan roots.

          • Feed more coffee and antihistamines into me before allowing me to post. Um, or accuse me in the media of being a member of Sad Puppies; I hear that automatically transforms people into white Mormon males (though some still have great racks!)

            And now, Sarah is free to tease me about not getting the brain completely booted up into English (American, not British) before getting online, and make plenty of jokes about Portuguese superiority. *facepalm*

            • Bah. Portuguese got taken out by the English rootkit in my case. If only it would decide whether it’s ‘murican or British.

            • Es tut mir leid, aber was ist das Problem? Verstehe Spanglisch.

              • vous comprenez? C’est epatant.

                • Robin Munn

                  ผมเข้าใจ.

                  (Okay, I guess switching to another alphabet counts as cheating.)

                  • Korean? If so those are adorable characters!

                    • jaed

                      Thai. (Google Translate’s “Detect Language” FTW! 😉

                    • Curiously enough – the Korean alphabet is … well, alphabetic – that is, the various characters stand for the specific sounds in the language. Not as in Chinese, or in the various Japanese alphabets, where the characters sound for … whatever. Same with Vietnamese, oddly enough – although the Korean alphabet system was the invention of one of their scholarly kings, and the Viet alphabet that of a similarly scholarly Catholic monk, IIRC.
                      When I had a part-time job at KBS, to do with overseeing their English nightly simulcast of their evening news, one of the translators that lived near to Yongsan AIG (we took the same bus home, after the evening broadcast) was convinced that I could learn Korean very easily because … it was all letter-based. If I grasped the sounds meant by the letters, then of course I could learn Korean. Piece of cake … if I weren’t such a hopeless duffer at foreign languages, likely I could have..

                    • Robin Munn

                      To reply to CeliaHayes (since we’re hitting max threading level): Yes, the Korean alphabet is one of the best-designed alphabets out there. The Thai alphabet was modeled after the Korean alphabet; when it was designed, it was extremely simple. Since Thai is tonal (it has five tones), there are up to five letters for each consonant, and each letter corresponded to one of the five tones. So if you saw this version of the letter k as the first consonant in a syllable, you’d know to use the rising tone for that syllable. But that version of the letter k meant the syllable is pronounced with the falling tone.

                      Now, I said that each letter corresponded, past tense, because several hundred years ago, Thai went through a great tone shift. Most words that used to be spoken in the high tone became spoken in the rising tone, words that used to use the low tone shifted to use either the mid-tone or the high tone (depending on vowel length), and so on. Result: the Thai alphabet now has umpteen rules for how consonant classes and syllable tones interact. It used to be “Does the syllable start with a low class consonant? Then use the low tone.” But now it’s “Does the syllable start with a low class consonant? Then if it’s an “open” consonant (ends with a long vowel or a sonorant consonant like n or m), use the mid tone, but if it’s a “closed” consonant, use the falling tone if it’s got a long vowel, but use the high tone if it’s got a short vowel.” Further result: foreigners trying to learn the language get utterly confused, have to spend half a year of study just to be able to read properly, and still use the wrong tone from time to time because they’ve forgotten one of the more obscure tone rules.

                      But when Thai was designed, it was a beautifully simple alphabet, where if you saw a word, you knew right away how to pronounce it. The Thai king who designed the alphabet was a genius, and it’s not his fault the language went through a tone shift centuries after his time.

                    • Robin Munn

                      And another reply to CeliaHayes: my father sometimes tells the story of when he taught himself the Korean alphabet while waiting around in the Seoul airport for a connecting flight. There was a poster on the wall with the letters and sounds, and the alphabet is so well designed that he was able to teach himself to read Korean in just 20 minutes. Didn’t help him with comprehension, but he was able to impress his Korean friends later by reading road signs out loud.

                    • TRX

                      In my part of Dixie Korean business signs are unremarkable. Airmen at the nearby military base married and brought their spouses back, and there’s a visible, all-female Korean subculture.

                      The interesting thing is, there are probably more Filipinas here than Koreans, but the Filipinas are invisibly assimilated.

                  • Reality Observer

                    Egads. Must be all that work with Unicode. I know not a word of Thai – but recognized the alphabet…

                    Now, Robin – what does it mean? (Please don’t tell me it translates as “c4c”…)

                    • Laura M

                      I still remember some Thai from my childhood, but I never could read it.

                    • Robin Munn

                      It means “I understand.” I thought of writing more, but I figured I should keep it short so people could paste it into Google Translate and get correct results. (Google Translate gives… rather poor translations of Thai if you give it a whole paragraph. Thai has many homonyms, and Google will usually pick the wrong meaning for at least two or three of the homonyms in any given sentence.)

        • ANY narrative that goes on for a very long time will become a soap opera. Vid — Greek mythology as the Greeks did it. Characters were even often “not really dead” and had twins and…
          Note I jumped straight to telenovela with Darkships. BUT (I hope) in a good way.

        • B. Durbin

          “stupidity is a necessity”

          Hence the term “idiot plot.” A plot that requires the characters therein to be idiots in order to progress.

          Quick translation for those still confused (apparently enough HS Spanish has stuck around): “anyone who misses episodes due to an extra shift, or sick kids,” “But they are not made for the netflix world of binge viewing, rather the working world.” “I need coffee; that’s why it’s not English. Sorry.

  3. TRX

    I had to endure soap operas when I spent a lot of time in hospital and doctor waiting rooms after my Dad’s health went downhill. Since there would be as many as four TVs per room, all cranked high enough to make your ears bleed, it was hard to avoid. I always felt like I was an inmate in some horrendous dystopian re-education camp.

  4. The problem with soap operas is the pace. If we wrote like that, we’d be tarred and feathered. You can watch once every week or two and still get the story. I think the popularity of romances and soaps is the transporting away from the death of everyday life. I’d rather enliven readers than kill them with more despair.

  5. Aimee Morgan

    Ah, sitting on the front porch watching the world go by.

    The last time we did that (just a few years ago), our peaceful observation of nothing (we live near the dead end of a dead end street) was interrupted by the scream of sirens as the local sheriffs and paramedics came racing to our neighbor’s house. Our neighbor’s husband, who was terminal, decided that he would go out on his terms. We spent the next few hours hosting the neighbor, her children, their children, and friends from church as they waited for Crime Scene to finish.

    For some reason, we don’t like to sit on the front porch anymore. We’ll sit in lawn chairs out back, watching nothing happen. When my husband tells me to put down my phone/tablet/kindle, I’ll stop reading, and start ‘writing’ stories in my head.

    I have been fortunate to have my choice of reading material (except when forced to read something for school), and have found myself putting down a lot of promising books when they turn out to be set in dystopias where decent-minded folk are either hard to find or non-existent.

  6. Yes, I am a terrible man, I just want to make my readers happy. I have no desires to lecture or pontificate to them.
    So needless to say, most of my one-star reviews are seriously detached from what my stories are about.

  7. sanfordbegley

    I have to disagree on one point. The death knell to porch sitting for many people was AC. You went out and sat on the porch when it got too hot inside. Climate control made it too hot on the porch

    • Sanford, HERE — Remember Europe does not have the US climate.

    • Exactly — I live for the first cool days in autumn when I can sit out on my back porch and enjoy my garden, and the birds coming to the feeders, and the sun gently setting in the west.
      Paradise, indeed. But not when it is 95+ in the shade.

      Curiously, I am scribbling away on a contemporary story myself … hope to bring it out in time for the Christmas shopping season. Amusing people, one or two of them rich, and all with their own occasionally soap-operaish back stories…

      • I enjoy sitting outside, behind the house, under the shade of an old oak tree. It’s too hot to sit in full sun, and I lack a porch.

        Unfortunately, sitting out there is full of inspiration. Inspiration like “Oh, right, I need to vacuum the house, and fold the laundry, and ah, yes, the grocery list, that is what I need to write.”

    • TRX

      Not so much AC as mosquitoes. Being covered with itchy marble-sized welts isn’t my idea of entertainment.

      • Again, Portugal. Different climate and pests. Inside we had fleas and rats. I think I was eight by the time we were finally free of those on a consistent basis. I.e. my expeditions to the attic, looking for books, were stopped with “don’t go up there. There’s mobs of rats.”

  8. A little daunting but true. I want readers to WANT to read what I write. The art and craft of this seems to be writing–and promoting–in a way that stirs that desire in them. Perhaps there’s a little magic pixie dust for that, as well?

  9. Bob

    On a positive note, I’m happy Cthulhu’s been brought more into the mainstream consciousness. Better shot of getting a readership for Lovecraftian works.

    • The Other Sean

      And it makes the “Chthulhu 2016: Why Choose the Lesser Evil?” bumper stickers accessible to a wider audience. 🙂

  10. Bob

    Another point, I owe Stephen King a thank you. A lot of his early work has been for the average guy, but he often referenced more obscure or classical texts that got me interested.

  11. Bob

    Of course, there’s also a more pessimistic (if funny) way of viewing things.

  12. Christopher M. Chupik

    “And that’s what you should remember when you’re working. You are a merchant, and if you’re not bought you’ll fail.”

    Words of iron. I used to think I was spending too much time on these blogs, but then I realized that my writing output has steadily grown since I did. It’s still way below what it should be, but coming here inspires me.

    Thank you.

    • TRX

      That’s pretty much my response to the people who claim I don’t read enough of whatever it is they’re peddling.

      “Write what I like to read, and I’ll buy it.”

      Their replies usually indicate they don’t want to hear that. Their story ticks all the proper checkboxes, therefore not reading it proves I’m hateful, homophobic, misogynist, yadda yadda as nauseum.

      “Whateverrr…”

  13. Laura M

    I like to read about decent people doing cool stuff and overcoming horrible obstacles. So, that’s what I try to write. Also, it’s more fun.

  14. Max

    This doesn’t mean you don’t write what you want to, just that you have to figure out how to present it and make it attractive.

    Sigh. Still working on that one. There doesn’t seem to be a magic bullet to figuring it out, either. Not that I expected one, but still, it’d be nice.

  15. In his class on “How to Be a Professional Fiction Writer”, Larry Correia

    (unauthorized plug—the first three class sessions’ notes are transcribed on my website at

    http://harrdharrharr.org

    we now return you to your regular commenting)

    describes the two rules of writing:

    1) Everything that your audience likes, leave in.

    2) Everything that your audience hates, take out.

    And there you have it, the secrets of a best-selling author.

    David

  16. This is why I tend to be very grateful I’ve done verbal storytelling. It gives some VERY fast feedback . You’re looking into your audience’s faces and can see when you start to loose them if you’re paying attention. A solid analysis can often tell a storyteller why. (For me it was making sure I 1. Didn’t ramble and 2. had properly introduced ‘odd’ comments.)

    • BEST writing “course” I took was hanging out at Austen.com fanfic. (AKA the Derbyshire’s Writers Guild. I think they now have completely different site.) It told me things I’d rather not know, but which I needed to know.

  17. “they don’t want to read about anyone deformed or anyone sickly or anyone old. They mostly read about rich people who are young and living lives of luxury….”

    Uh oh. But what if you make the sickly person fascinating and principled and strong? Or have at least one ‘young + rich + life of luxury’ who is the villain?

    Please say I’m not doomed.

    • yeah. You’re not doomed. We in SF are always a little odd. As long as you don’t wallow in the bad stuff, and I can’t imagine you doing it. How is life treating you, btw? PM is acceptable for an answer if you don’t want to make it public.

      • Thanks. I sent you an email to GP [at] gm – hope that email still works.

        I am definitely odd. When I add up all the bell curves I’m way out in left field on (don’t try to parse that sentence), I’m in a microscopic demographic. And since I don’t have any choice in the matter, I’m fine with it, and try to make the best of it.

        Hope you are feeling a lot better since, literally, the dust settled on your house.

    • Confutus

      Ever heard of Miles Vorkosigan? You’re not doomed.

  18. Confutus

    Another thing that feeds this “nostalgie de la boue” is the philosophy of existentialism. This philosophy with its emphasis on the meaningless of life has become popular in in literature, drama, art, psychology, theology, politics, and higher education, starting principally after WW I.
    The pernicious thing about it is that creators who embrace it have a tendency to commit “grey goo”.

  19. “They mostly read about rich people who are young and living lives of luxury.”

    Sorry, but that sounds boring as f* to me. A bunch of rich folks hanging around acting like stereotypical rich folks? I already had to slog through Great Gatsby 4 (5? 6?) times back when I was in school: I’d rather not read it or anything like it again.

    Granted, I used to have my protagonists be super-rich, but that was only so I could realistically justify giving them loads of high-end state-of-the-art hardware (read: guns and cars).

    Nowadays, I write stories that I’d want to read if I found them in B&N or on Amazon, and hope & pray that there is a decent-sized audience who will think them interesting enough to spend money on.

    • No, they give them issues like looking for love. Mind you, this is not what I write or advocate writing — it’s something that shocked both me and my friend a little. However it’s opposite, the “everyone is poor and things are always horrible” that’s… silly and turns a lot of people off.

      • Laura M

        Hmm. That sounds like a challenge.

      • Ah, gotcha. Still sounds boring as f*, though. 😉

        And I agree with the “everyone is poor and things are always horrible” angle being stupid. But at the same time, I’m afraid I may be guilty of a variation of it: my work tends to be “the protagonists are mercenaries, and once again the plan hasn’t worked and everything’s gone to sh*t.”

        • Laura M

          But it’s ok if they have to over come the failure of the plan. You just can’t be miserable the entire novel, including through the final sentence.

          Everyone is poor can definitely still be appealing, but there’s got to be an epic struggle. I read some shifter books a while back, both Sarah’s and a Mercy Thompson series, where our MCs were poor, and they were totally cool. Maybe being a shifter is the equivalent of being rich.

        • yeah, but think of say Ringo’s zombies. Dystopic, sure, but who doesn’t want to go around living without jobs and virtuously looting and starting civilization anew.

      • TRX

        “Money can’t buy you happines.”

        “No, but it can buy you all the outward trappings of happiness!”

        • Chris Nelson

          Tell that to the guy that sold Minecraft to Microsoft. Apparently he’s having a fair bit of difficulty adjusting to lifestyle. (Would make a great starting point for an interesting yarn…)

          • William Underhill

            It would; you need to write it. Throw in proof that Bill Gates really IS from Antares, and you’re golden 🙂

  20. Pat Patterson

    Re: preaching at the people. My reviews are my pulpit, and sometimes!es I want to grab my audience by the arm and drag them to a book and MAKE them read it. The ONLY problem with that is that I don’t have 20,000 slavishly devoted followers. But: DAMMIT, I keep finding these incredible books! It’s a bluidy sick situation: I need more readers to get THEM more readers.
    Now, let me be specific: I want you ALL to read Alma Boykin’s Colplatschki series, right frakken now. I cannot stand that this WONDERFUL series isn’t selling millions of copies. Alma just put them all on Kindle Unlimited, which is what permitted me to go beyond the first book. I’m going to review the second book tomorrow, and will likely wrote a blog post as well, but DAMN!!! The woman is BRILLIANT!! And she’s not the only one out there with phenomenal story telling ability who hasn’t gotten deserved recognition (I’m looking at you, Laura Montgomery as well as others).
    Now we will sing the first,second, and last verses of “Gladly, the Cross-eyed Bear” and meet in the fellowship hall for spaghetti.

  21. I remember watching the Moll Flanders mini-series with my mom while we were baking (we always watch mini-series while baking) for the holidays. I didn’t think she was really paying attention until sometime in the third episode when Moll turns to the camera and says “What would you do?” and my mom yelled “Not that!”.

    She still claims to hate the show, character, etc. but I will always love it for that one moment of outrage that left me actually laughing on the floor.

    That being said, my husband and I were talking about how we were tired of watching shows and reading books about horrible people doing horrible things and being horrible to each other. I started reading Romance because everything else that was available made me want to slit my wrists. But with Romance, a happy ending was guaranteed! And the best ones had good people trying to do good things for the right reasons. There was a lot of crap out there but I learned who I could trust to tell a good story and stuck with them even through some questionable decisions. (A planet of cavemen? Really?) And a lot of it could have been billed as Science Fiction or Fantasy with a little bit of editing.

  22. A Question here.
    I’ve started typing up my notes from the books in my POI series, I just finished the book one notes. Now these aren’t the ‘this is how the story goes’ notes, these are the ‘here’s whats -really- going on in the background with the gods and goddesses’ notes, as well as the background as to where the characters are coming from (a bit more detailed historical background).
    I didn’t write this stuff into the original story, because it’s first person singular, so the reader doesn’t get to see it, as the hero doesn’t know it. I also felt it would have detracted from the story trying to work it in.
    But I’m looking at this now and wondering what to do with it. Because it details a lot of the manipulation the hero was subjected to, a lot of it unknowingly (I mean come on, they’re -gods- the gods always mess with people!) I’ve been thinking of just putting them (one per book) on my author’s website behind a spoilers tag, for the readers to look at later, if they want, but I’m not sure if that’s the best approach.

    Any suggestions out there?

    • You’ve written enough stuff that I bet you could make a success with a ‘How I Did It’ book. Include some personal stories and a couple of unpublished shorts. Think of ‘N-Space’ and ‘Playgrounds of the Mind’ by Niven.

    • Laura M

      You could call it a Companion. I have one for Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles somewhere. Truefen buy such things.