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Don't Blame The Reader

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I was trying to think of a tie-in for the title of this post with "Don't Fear The Reaper" but my imagination is failing me this evening. Nonetheless, I have read an interesting article on Salon.com (yes, I am an unashamed, unrepentent liberal) that basically says to writers, "Stop thinking you're owed readers. you have to earn them." (I hear John Houseman in the background).

It is discussing creative writing programs in the United States- including the famous Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa- and the belief that these programs take creative and idosyncratic writers and turn them into bland, vanilla cookies. The author of the story disagrees and says the problem with writers is that we expect everyone will want to read our work simply because we wrote it. If creative writing programs have a problem, it's that the workshop in which all the students critique each other's work is the only time that anyone aside from the editor will pay any attention to the work. If we want readers, we have to make our work interesting.

This has come at a moment for me when comments from a reader of my Wicked Boys story were forwarded to me. My first reaction, and apparently that of other writers, judging from comments I've read here, is to blame the reader for not being smart enough to understand what I'm trying to do, when in reality it's my fault for not being clear enough. Rather than being irritated that someone has pointed out a flaw in my writing, I should be thrilled that someone actually took the time to read my work AND to comment on it, whether negatively or positively.

This is not to say all negative criticism is valid, but that we should be grateful for the readers' input- which was my take from the article, though it discusses much more.


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Guest Dabeagle

I think we had a discussion somewhere about quality feedback - and I can see the point that if you're not writing something interesting or the subject doesn't connect with a reader or readership then you won't get that feedback. I think it gets supremely frustrating if you KNOW it's getting purchased/page hits and there is still no response. Even to say 'Wow, this had no plaot, the characters were unlikeable and I couldn't relate to them and who uses language like this?'

However, since the world takes all kinds, I think it's fair to say that some readers won't get some stories - we have to decide for ourselves where that line is.

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I truly believe a lot of readers have no idea we'd like to hear from them. So, so many take the position that, this guy wrote this wonderful story. He's so far above me intellectually, what in the world could I have to say that would interest him at all?

That isn't true of course, of our feelings. I know very few writers who are that smug, that arrogant about their writing. Most of us are very normal people, people who'd love to discuss our writing, especially with insighful readers like the one that FT just mentioned. A reader who actually gets what we're writing, has analyzed it and can mention things he'd like elucidated, or that he'd like to discuss.

I get so few emails from readers who want to discuss my writing; those letters are practically nonexistent. And yet I love doing that, explaining that plot detail, explaining why I made such and such a character this way and that, and I imagine all you guys do, too.

I would think it would be even lonelier publishing on paper. Here at least there is fairly easy access to us. I've written to a lot of internet writers. I've never written the published ones.


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Print writers have a different mechanism to tell if people like their stories: sales.

For stories published on the Internet for free, the only ways we have to tell if people like what we write is either feedback, or some sort of 'view/like' counter. The main problem I've found is that 'view' counters get distorted by the search engine bots that will read stories, but don't really appreciated them :icon1: Narrowing views to only humans is a difficult job....

It gets back to what does an author want to get from publishing? Some want to be liked. Others want to be recognised (that is, for some people to recognise their talent without needing to be popular). Others simply get enjoyment from the creative process and want to share.

We don't all want the same things. For me, I like the creative process (even if it's been frustrating me for the last few weeks) and I like feedback when I get it, but I don't need it. I don't crave it, and I'm simply happy if I think my readers are happy, without worrying about how many readers there actually are.

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The readers who send me comments are very kind and some of them are quite explicit in what they like to see in the stories they read. I like to include a smidgeon of history in most things I write and I do have to be careful with that because there are some pretty smart readers who will call me out if they find an error.

That being said, I do emphasize that what they see is fiction and with that label I am allowed to stand history on its head if I so desire, and I often do. But reader feedback is vital if I am to keep writing the stories they like and not go off on some tangent. But like Cole, I would enjoy any reader who takes up the challenge to discuss the thoughts behind a plot or character.

It is gratifying to hear that a reader became engaged in the story and I don't feel the least bit guilty if they stayed up all night reading it. I need to earmark stories like that and keep writing them. I even enjoy those who write and simply say good story and nothing more. I have always maintained that what we write is entertainment, something to embrace the reader and take them away to a world of fantasy, if only for a short while.

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I think the situation is a little different for internet writers from published writers. Published writers can point to sales figures, or to responses from critics, or perhaps even to reader feedback as gauges of success and motivation to continue writing (in addition to their internal drive to write). Writers for the internet are often placed in the position of the castaway on a deserted island who has little recourse except to place messages into bottles and fling them into the wide blue sea.

There is a significant exception to this form of loneliness, however, and it is all around us here at Awesome Dude: Community. This site, and a few others like it, give writers a place to come together and share in the observations and discussions and feedback to our writing that serve to sustain us. That readers may also participate is a precious bonus.

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Guest Dabeagle

I agree with Merkin, to a point. As I was discussing with someone the other day a lot - a lot - of my impetus to write comes from interacting with those that are reading. When something generates no interaction or so little as to make no difference, my creative desire dries right up. Community keeps us involved and, perhaps, eventually brings you back to the writing table but we all do it for different reasons.

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  • 1 month later...

Just caught this discussion from a few weeks back (or else I would've commented earlier). One thing about getting email comments from readers is, at least they care enough to tell you what they think. I'm gratified by that, particularly when they disagree with me or ask what happened to a character who departed the story for various reasons. My thinking is, "wow -- the readers really think these characters are alive!" So I think that's a positive.

I really, really like what Chris is doing Wicked Boys, and I think it's doubly interesting that it details a New York that doesn't exist anymore: the city of the early 1970s. It's terrific to read a story that has characters this alive and energetic, and whatever quibbles I have with it don't negate the fact that it's one of the best pieces of fiction I've read all year. The literary touches are very funny, and I think the wry and often ironic and funny dialogue really nails it for me. Fantastic story.

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  • 1 year later...

The writer's workshop or journalism school can be the first step in acquiring the concept of broad appeal for the purpose of being made acceptable to a money generating audience. Here is where you will find the formulaic writer, the topical and the political writers that serve the system. This should be an anathema to the creative writer.

But if it money you want, you will serve the corporate monolith.

FH is right. The other issue is telling your story and earning your readers one at a time. You can do this by presenting an idea or point of view that resonates with specific individuals.

The corporate machine has no time for crazy artists and writers with less than a popular point of view, but there are readers in the wilderness that will want to read your work and maybe be reassured through understanding and kinship.

The other problem not mentioned above is that there so few readers out there in the first place. This is what compels us to push the envelope. this contributes the flood of dedicated wank-media.

We have a struggle on all sides...

There is nothing wrong with education, formal or otherwise but being a writer is one of the few professions that does not require any credentials. All you need are readers.

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...There is nothing wrong with education, formal or otherwise but being a writer is one of the few professions that does not require any credentials. All you need are readers.

And a story to tell. And a grasp of grammar. And the patience of Job, as you experience many of his same setbacks.

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