Wednesday, June 22, 2011

In Which I Talk About Blood, Guts, the F-Bomb, & Your Mom

I have been thinking a lot about writing for readers in the past week.

This is for a couple of reasons. First of all, because I was on the This is Teen tour with Meg Cabot & Libba Bray and we got a lot of audience questions that set my brain going. And secondly, because I’m working on MagicalNovel (no, I cannot tell you anything about it, but I reckon you expected that) where guiding reader expectations has been a preoccupation of mine. And thirdly, because I have a very little time to write MagicalNovel before I leave on my Giant Road Trip Driving Tour for FOREVER, and that always makes me philosophize instead of working.

Anyway, a bunch of times on tour, I got asked by readers or interviewers if I changed my writing for teens, or for my readers in general. And my first response was to get all prickly and snarl in a bristly voice, just what do you mean by that? and then growl I have my integrity! and ultimately explode I WRITE FOR ME.

Of course, that was before I realized I was lying.

I didn’t mean to lie, of course, it’s just that I was interpreting the question in a rather filthier way than it really needed to be. In my head, the question became about chasing trends and putting in kissy scenes because you thought it would make the book sell better and making certain you followed a certain commercial formula.

And yeah, changing your writing for a perceived audience can mean those things, but it doesn’t have to mean only those things. Because the fact is, I am very aware of my audience when I write, and the more I think about it, the more I think every aspiring writer needs to be. In fact, I think you HAVE to think about how readers are going to interpret your words if you want the story in your head to be the same one they experience.

This was a big issue for me in THE SCORPIO RACES — actually, in LINGER, as well. Both Cole St. Clair and Sean Kendrick are characters who don’t lend themselves to instant sympathy: Cole because he is a massively self-involved jerk, and Sean because he’s remote, keeping people at an arm’s length. As the plot moves along, I reveal why they are the way they are, and that there is more to them than the first impression. But the reader doesn’t know that. At any moment, they could pitch the novel aside, disinterested in reading about these unsympathetic characters. This is where I realize that I think about readers a LOT. Especially when I have unsympathetic or difficult characters, I obsess about how readers are going to see them. I have to give my readers something to hang their hat on, some promise that they will later like this character, or another plot element to identify with while I buy myself some time to make that hard character softer.

Actually, I was chatting with my friend Carrie about plotting once, and she had a great way of putting it. She said that she always felt that an author started with a certain number of gimmee points, and every time you did something to shake the reader’s confidence, like a convenient plot element, you lost some points. Once the gimmee points were all used up, the book was tossed against the wall.

I have an imaginary list in my head of things that use gimmee points. Every element that might make a reader stumble: A tragic ending. A hard to pronounce name for the narrator. A character with a really unsympathetic past. Elvis impersonators. Intimidating number of pages. A cowardly main character. Gore. Swearing. Politically charged elements. Killing the dog. Unusual sentence structure, unfamiliar mythology, loads of place names, high body count.

Do I think that all of these things are fine things to put in a novel? Yes. Do I think that the inclusion of any of them will make the novel less universally loved? Yes. Do I think if you put in all of them, it's virtually only going to be loved by you and your mom? Yes.

This is the part where I have to say that I write mainstream fiction, not literary. This entire blog post is less relevant if you’re writing literary, which is full of readerly stumbling blocks for important reasons. I think it’s crucial, though, that you know which one you’re writing. (Somewhere recently I talked about expectations, and how lots of people write books with limited commercial appeal and then wonder why they aren’t smash bestsellers.) If you’re trying to write a novel with a broad readership, you need to know how many gimmee points you’ve used up. You have to choose your battles wisely. If you really want the tragic end, do you really need to strangle that character with his own intestines in chapter four? Do you really need to name your main character Peliphenorious?

Some writers might disagree, but I have no problem with changing Peliphenoriuous’s name to Bob, if it’s all the same to me, if I know that readers will prefer reading about someone named Bob. I also have no problem curbing a shockingingly gory scene if I want to preserve the reader’s good graces for the gory scene that I really want later in the book. I really don't mind taking out all the f-bombs if I think it will make the readers that I otherwise think will like my novel stumble. It's usually not about changing elements entirely — it’s about changing the way you write about it, to make it less of a bitter pill for the reader. And my point of compromise will not be another writer's point of compromise. The readers I imagine in my head for my novels might not be the readers you imagine in your head. Not everyone, for instance, wants to write books your mom will like.

I do.

I do have a problem with changing major plot elements to what readers want, because I have gone on record multiple times saying that readers know what they want but not what they need. The story has to stay mine, at its heart.

In the end, it does come back down to how an outside viewer is perceiving your book, which is why critique partners are so important to me. I need to know if I’m playing the balancing act well, convincing a reader to follow a difficult character or managing a contentious story element. I don’t think of it as compromising my stories, though. In fact, I think considering my readers’ feelings is what lets me tackle hard elements in my novels. Knowing they’re going to be a hard sell gives me the foreknowledge to package them in the most universally appealing way possible.


What do you think about this, as a reader or as a writer? Do you have an element that will always push you away from a book? Do you want the reader to be part of the writerly equation?
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