Monday, January 12, 2009

Hail, Caesar

The Roman emperors realized that the way to win favor with the public was to give them what they wanted.

On the surface, this seems counter-intuitive, or even just plain wrong. It would seem that kings and dictators who rule with an iron fist would be able to stay in control and get more done through fear.

And yet, every Caesar built grand public buildings and held fabulous spectacles, all to keep their subjects docile by making them happy.

Now here comes the writing analogy.

How often, in your writing, do you write whatever the hell you want to write without any care at all for your audience?

When we start out, we're all 100% self-indulgent. We have huge egos that demand we put our brilliant words on paper. Of course other people will love them as much as we do. Of course they'll sell by the millions.

And then, as we head down the road to publication, we start to learn things. We learn about craft and form, and that narratives have structure and genres. We learn about editing and polishing, and how cutting and adding and getting input from others makes our work better. And eventually, if we make it far enough, we learn about marketing and selling.

We aren't really artists. We're emperors. Because, like those emperors, we start out doing whatever we desire. But we come to realize that if we want to keep being emperors, the key is to sell as much of our work as possible. And that means giving the people what they want.

I've said, ad nauseum, that before you create a key, study the lock. Know who the audience is, and who the buyer is, before you even write the first word of a story.

But if you want to make people happy, and keep them buying your work (or visiting your blog, or downloading your freebies, or entering your contests, or attending your appearances) you have to know more than just the genre and prospective publisher. It's very easy to say, "I'm writing a mystery because a lot of people buy mysteries and a lot of houses publish mysteries so I've figured out the lock before I make the key" and still be way off the mark in terms of success.

So how do you figure out what people want?

Readers of this blog know that people seek two things from writers: information and entertainment. The specific kind of information and entertainment, however, is mostly subjective, and often hard to guess.

So here are some hints.

1. Look Inward. We all start out trying to please ourselves, and this might actually end up being helpful. If you think something is funny, chances are other people do as well. So while you're attempting to please your audience, remember what works on you. What books do you like to read? Why do you enjoy them? What are the last five books you've bought and why?

The more you understand yourself, the better you'll understand others.

2. Look Outward. Read as much as you can. Join a writers group and critique others. Figure out what works, what doesn't, and come up with reasons why.

You shouldn't write in a genre you aren't well-read in. You shouldn't submit a story to a magazine unless you've read several issues cover to cover. Every time you write, you aren't reinventing the wheel. You're simply putting a new spin on the wheel. Figure out how the wheel works, then you can spin it accordingly.

3. Get Feedback. There are a few jokes I tell that NEVER get a laugh, even though I think they're funny.

A story, or a speech, or a blog, isn't a monologue. It is an exchange, and involves at least one other person. Pay attention to how that person responds. With a blog or a speech, you can get feedback quickly. With a story, you have to solicit it.

Seek out peers, and trade manuscripts with them to critique. Pay attention to agents and editors--they're on your side and want to make the story better. Find as many beta readers as you can, and be ready to ask them questions about what is and isn't working.

4. Respect Your Audience. Once you learn who your audience is, and what they want, it is your job to never let them down. Ways to let them down include:
  • Talking down to them
  • Talking over their heads
  • An unsatisfying ending
  • Making your characters do uncharacteristic things
  • Too many coincidences
  • Unfunny humor
  • Poor or confusing structure
  • Unrealistic romance
  • Gratuitous anything
  • Self-indulgence
All writers really need to watch the last one. If you think you may be showing off, or know in your heart that the line/scene you just wrote will never fly, chances are high it will never fly.

Once you fall in love with your own voice, you get bestselleritis. If you're a bestseller, this disease won't do you much harm. You can keep writing long-winded, self-important, unrealistic crap that's a shell of your early work, and because people are creatures of habit they'll keep buying it--although you can expect them to voice their disapproval on

But if you're a new writer, and you expect people to bend over and accept your writing simply because you think it's good enough--that's a career killer.

In fact, it's wise to never believe your own hype, at any stage of your career.

Ultimately, we're entertainers. We're the people who play sax on street corners for pocket change. The more people we entertain, the more money we get. So remember to take requests...


Unknown said...

Not being self indulgent is very difficult. I've redrafted the same novel several times and whiffs of me basically saying "woo, isn't that a good sentence?" still crop up.

For me, that's the hardest point to deal with.

Good analogy with the Romans!

Anonymous said...

My blog audience redirects me to the point I sometimes wonder if I am Palov's dog.

Gayle Carline said...

Stay true to your voice and please your audience - ah, there's the rub, eh? The timing of this post is so ironic. This weekend, I posted an entry to your 14-word story contest. One reader said I didn't need the last 4 words. Another reader said they liked the last 4 words. At this point, I either go with my instincts, or wait for the tiebreaker.

And Chris - it's one of my own, personal physical laws that, whenever I read one of my sentences and get aflutter with pride and self-adoration, I know THAT'S the sentence I'll end up deleting.

Anonymous said...

When I first started writing, I was very self-indulgent (and also derivative). Then I went the other way and started writing with a close eye on the market, and I snagged a top agent. When the book didn't sell, I tried even harder to write for the market, determined to get a frigging book contract. I didn't make it past 20K words. I hated the book.

Now I think I've found a balance between pleasing myself and--I pray--pleasing a publisher.

JA Konrath said...

Writing for the market is tricky.

On one hand, being derivative and following trends is an easy way to be labeled as an unimaginative imitator.

On the other hand, doing whatever the hell you want to do is shooting yourself in the foot.

If you truly believe that stories have structure, and genres have certain conventions, then you can be the same but different, and write for the market with your own unique voice.

Knowing you're not original is the first step in becoming unique.

I'm going to say that again, because it seems like it makes a lot of sense.

Knowing you're not original is the first step in becoming unique.

Someone call Barlett's.

About Me said...

My critique group has helped me to realize the needs of the reader. I think a lot of newies don't really see their self indulgent until someone points it out.

Hopscotcher said...

I can only respond in saying I feel very frustrated. I have read many books on the subject of getting published. I have taken time and effort in creating a polished cover letter. I have reconstructed my synopsi seven thousand times. I have feedback from others sayin "YOU ROCK!" I have no idea what I'm doing wrong and no matter what I do, I still get the form rejection letters in the mail. *shrugs*

ssas said...

I can chime in on this from an editorial standpoint, as a short story editor.

Most of the stories we get are good. A sound 60% are way above average.

But we take something like 6 stories out of 300. So culling has to start somewhere, and it's called "Subjectiville."

I know what we're looking for, as a group. I read a story I love, but I know what kind of fight I may have getting it past the other editors and their tastes.

I also look at what kind of actual editing the story will take. Some great stories are worth a great deal of my time. Others, not so much, for a myriad of reasons (such as the editing required by the other stories under consideration).

Then there's issue balance. If we get 4 great werewolf stories (don't laugh, it happened two issues again) obviously we could have a "werewolf" theme or we have to pick one. We don't do themed issues, so we had to take it down to one.

And I'm getting to a point where I know whether a writer has ever read our magazine before. I certainly know whether they've scanned our submission requirements.

Point? Keep at it until someone loves your stuff above all the others.

Anonymous said...

Excellent point, starbucks -- this business is nothing but subjective. As much as it sucks to admit, it's all about being in the right place at the right time, finding that one person who loves your stuff when everyone else doesn't.

And Joe, great point too. It reminds me of a debate I had recently with another writer. About if a publisher asked you to make a major change in your book, would you "sell out" and do it or would you keep to your guns and refuse. And my point was simply as writers we are both artists AND business people. Unfortunately, one always has to go in front of the other. There's a reason they're called "starving artists."

JA Konrath said...

The key word in "sell out" is "sell."

This is a business. Treat it as such.

Ann Voss Peterson said...

I think people confuse writing with publishing. They are two totally different things.

Writing can be pure creative expression. It can be whatever you want it to be. Publishing is a business, period. And no amount of brilliance on the part of the writer is going to change that fact.

If you believe writing for someone else (a reader, an editor) is selling out, you're not interested in publishing. So don't go there. You can write without publishing.

Jim said...

Authors should always strive to read gooder, write gooder and speak gooder.

Miss Mahana said...

Another helpful post, but it made me feel a bit low at the same time. I'm so new to writing (seriously), it seems like it will be a long time before I create anything that's readable.

Having said that, I know I'm not original, any idea I can think of, a billion others have probably thought of it first.

T. M. Hunter said...

In fact, it's wise to never believe your own hype, at any stage of your career.

I need to get that posted up on my office wall...

Unknown said...

"When we start out, we're all 100% self-indulgent. We have huge egos that demand we put our brilliant words on paper. Of course other people will love them as much as we do. Of course they'll sell by the millions."

Soooo true, I couldn't have said it better myself.