Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Wednesday Writing Tip - Who Do You Write For?

I hear a lot of authors say that they write for themselves then complain that 1) they got a bad review, and/or 2) they're not selling any books.

If you are writing for yourself, neither of those two things should bother you, because you are the only person who matters. If you aren't writing for the reader, what do you care what the reader thinks and whether they buy your books or not? In fact, if you're only writing for yourself, why even put your books up for sale? That seems contradictory, unless of course, you're only writing for yourself with the aim of getting rich. In which case, I have a whole 'nother opinion of that which I won't go into here.

The long and short is that when someone only writes for him or herself, it's called journaling, because when you write for yourself, the implication is that no one else will see what you've written. The writing is for your eyes only.

If you haven't figured it out, yet, I'm not buying it for a second that a writer writes only for him- or herself when they publish books for public consumption. I think that catch phrase gets used as a protective mechanism, not a true measure of their intentions.

So then, who really do you write for when you intend for the general population to see your work, maybe even buy it? Who do you write for when seeing a bad review hurts your feelings, upsets you, and/or makes you consider throwing in the towel and stop writing?

The answer is simple: The Reader.

Sol Stein is an author, editor, publisher, and writing instructor who's been in the business of all four since before I was in grade school (over 40 years). He has won awards for his work, and when it comes to writing, he's one of modern day's most knowledgeable authority. I just started reading his book, How to Grow a Novel.  The Reader is so important in Mr. Stein's opinion that the first chapter of the section titled, The Responsibilities of the Writer is called The Reader is Looking for an Experience.

I chuckled when I read that chapter, because I'm always saying that. "It's all about the reader's experience."

Mr. Stein begins by saying that "Lack of  courtesy may be the chief fault that distinguishes unsuccessful writing from the most successful." Courtesy calls for a consideration of the needs and wants of another person, and in writing, the other person is the reader. If you aren't considering readers' needs and wants, you aren't being courteous.

Sol goes on to explain that "The reader of fiction may welcome insight and information, yes, but is primarily seeking an experience different from and greater than his or her everyday experiences in life." Think of a play or movie that sucked you in and had you from the first scene to the very last. A movie that you watch over and over because of how it makes you feel. That was an experience. As authors, it's our job to transpose that experience through the written word. And we've all read books that swept us away, right? A book sweeps you away and draws you in because it gave you an experience.

How do you provide that experience? Well, one way is to know what audiences crave; what holds their attention. And what is that? The answer is: anxiety, tension, suspense, and conflict. Don't believe me? Have you ever been to a sporting event that was a blow-out? Have you ever watched one on TV? What happens before the end of the game? Fans begin leaving the stands to beat the traffic. They've lost all interest in the game because, guess what? There's no anxiety, tension, suspense, or conflict. The winner is clear long before the end. They're simply waiting for the inevitable, so why stick around? On the contrary, what happens when a game comes down to the last second?

I live in Indianapolis and have had the honor of seeing some outstanding football games under Peyton Manning's reign. Several years ago, I took my nephew to see the Colts play the Carolina Panthers. This was when Manning was beginning to hit his stride, and starting a season 6-0 or better was becoming commonplace. I remember this game vividly. Why? Because it was a nail-biter that went right down to the wire. Both teams were the last in the league to be undefeated. And the game did not disappoint to live up to the hype. My nephew and I sat in the end zone, and for the whole second half, I don't think we sat down for more than a few plays. The RCA Dome (we didn't have Lucas Oil Stadium, yet) was so loud with cheering, I swear to you that for the fourth quarter of that game, I could not hear myself, even though I was yelling at the top of my lungs. The place was in an uproar as we cheered the Colts on. The game was tied up right to the very end, and then the Panthers kicked a last-second field goal in overtime to win.


Anxiety, tension, suspense, and conflict: The recipe to keep readers turning the page.

So, when do you take your readers into consideration? While you're writing? Before? After? Here's what Sol Stein says: "Those writers who attempt to consider the reader's experience while writing usually fail. The time to think about the effect of each sequence is when planning a scene or revising it."

"..or revising it."

This is why editing is so, so, so very important. And why setting your manuscript aside for a month or two before editing it is equally important. Because by setting your manuscript aside to let it cool off and breathe, you are able to put fresh eyes to it and read it more as a reader would when you come back to edit it. Thus, you more easily spot where the construction of the story fails to provide an experience, because you are able to feel it more like a reader would.

I recently read the Peek Inside of a book on Amazon, and was pretty appalled by what I found. When I can read less than 20 paragraphs and find over 20 errors in spelling, punctuation, missing words, sentence structure, etc., that's a sign that the author did not edit their manuscript, proof it, or even read it (and, yes, that's a true story. I read 18 paragraphs of a self-published book and found 25 errors). That is like telling a reader, "You don't matter enough for me to take my time, do this right, and give you your money's worth."

Some folks might get defensive over that statement, but here's the deal: When I'm reading a book, I'm not an author, I am a READER and, more importantly, a CUSTOMER. I deserve the best you can give me. I deserve a quality product. And if I don't get it...? Guess what happens. And it doesn't matter if it's a book, a toaster, a TV, or a pair of shoes. If it's poorly made and/or doesn't work, I'm returning it and will take my business elsewhere.

Have you ever gotten food poisoning from eating out or from a certain brand of food? Have you ever taken your car in for repairs, shelled out hundreds of dollars, only to get the car back and the problem still exists? Have you ever gotten a hair cut or dye job that went waaaay wrong? Have you ever bought a product that promised such-and-such and then failed to deliver? How did you feel? Angry? Cheated? Disappointed? Pissed off to the point where you demanded a refund? Did you ever eat at that restaurant or buy that brand of food again, and if you did, did it take you a while to feel comfortable that it wouldn't make you sick? Did you ever use that repair shop again, and if you did, did you worry if your car would come back fixed or not? Did you find a new hair stylist? Did you ever buy another product from that company? Even if you did, your confidence dimmed in that company, didn't it?

Most people, when they receive bad service, will take their business elsewhere. And they won't even tell you they're leaving. They'll just go. And the bad reputation and word of mouth advertising will eventually kill the business.

Same with writing. If I read a book by an author and it's chock full of errors, I probably won't buy another book by that author. Sad, but true, and a lot of readers feel that way. It's why an author needs to be vigilant with their editing and proofing.

Proper punctuation and grammar aside, every author who plans to sell their work should write for the reader. It doesn't matter if you think you've come up with some new method of presenting POV, or if you want to bring back Shakespearean-style writing, or that you feel that describing the trade of plumbing in a novel is utterly fascinating. If that is not what your intended audience wants, or if modern writing techniques and conventions do not support it, listen carefully now - IT WILL NOT SELL. Period. 

Authors need to know their audience. They need to know what readers want, and they have to deliver it to them. And what do readers want? Generally speaking, readers want:

  • Clear writing, not wordy mumbo-jumbo.
  • Engaging characters
  • Happy, resolved endings (remember, I said "generally speaking." Some books do well with sad or unresolved endings, but for the most part, most do not)
  • Good grammar, spelling, and punctuation
  • Anxiety, tension, suspense, and conflict.

Basically, readers want what I call (and Sol Stein describes as) an experience, as stated earlier. A reading experience is one a reader can dive into, see, feel, become absorbed in, and not be knocked out of by bad story-telling, grammar, punctuation, or plots that are too far-fetched to believe. Anything that causes a reader to stop or re-read a sentence to understand what's being said interferes with their experience of reading your book.

Readers also want you to adhere to a few writing conventions held near and dear by the publishing industry for eons. I know one author who brags ad nauseum about their monolithic novel they've been working on for twenty years which is now over 360,000 words in length. Very few readers want to pick up a book that long. Most readers max out around 150K. In fact, the publishing industry advises that a work of fiction not exceed 120K. Many traditional publishers won't even publish a work over 120K. But no amount of talk with this author has detoured him from his endeavor. He still plans on publishing this piece at this length (or longer, because he's still writing it).
I guess the moral of this story is, as an author, know your audience and know what you're trying to accomplish, and make sure your work is error-free so as not to obstruct your readers' experience. As with everything in life, if you don't know where you're going and what you want as your end result, you won't know how to get there. You'll just drive around aimlessly and never reach your destination.

Reach your destination! Know what you want and build the map to get there.

Happy writing!


  1. I love reading your writing advise.
    For a first time writer your blogs are a huge help. It shows me what or how to get my story told in the right way, and it helps me to focus on the reader. So thank you for all your help and I hope that you keep doing it for all your fans.

    1. Thank you. And, yes, I plan on keeping on...with both the writing posts and the books. :) And I hope I can continue to give them something new and better with each story.