Thursday, August 5, 2010

when the most important reader is you

My writing partner and I have spent the last two months working diligently on Why I Love Singlehood. Although I wish we could be working in the same room (and not just because it would speed up the process, but because it would be even more fun), I've enjoyed the conversations that have come out of it just as much as the revisions and improvements. We talk, among other things, about the writing process.

Every so often we run into a piece of text that we're not sure works, and we try to put ourselves into the shoes of the reader. How would they respond to or interpret it? As my former student, my partner-in-crime remembers how I used to seemingly contradict myself on a regular basis when teaching audience awareness: "There are times when you have to put your readers first," I'd say, "and there are times when you need to ignore your audience altogether, when the only reader that matters is you, the writer."

The trick is knowing when to to do either. And sometimes, it can indeed be tricky.

In one particular instance, my partner was concerned about a joke I had inserted, a question that comes out of the protagonist's mouth st a pivotal point. Although she found it funny, she questioned whether readers would find the joke uncomfortable, or whether the PC police might find it inappropriate.

If there's anything I've learned from my reader reviews, is that as a writer, you can't please everyone, and you never will. Readers complained about Andi's swearing. They complained that she grieved for too long. They complained that she treated David poorly. They complained that she was too pretentious (actually, I think that one was about me). And so on.

So, regarding the joke, I asked her a simple question:
"Did it make you uncomfortable?"

"If it bothers you or me," I said, "even the slightest bit, we lose it. Otherwise, if we laugh, and we like it, we keep it."

We decided to keep it for the time being, and to try it out on test readers. If they don't like it, then we'll reconsider. See what I mean? It's a tricky thing, a balancing act.

I've read books by authors who seem to be trying way too hard to please their audience, to deliver what they think their readers want, to write what they (or their publishers, perhaps) think will sell. But my mantra (and it's not original) still holds true: I write the books I want to read.

What would keep me turning the pages? In what direction do I want to see the characters go? Who do I want to see them with? (And even then, my characters have more control than I do regarding their fate, their truths.) What makes me laugh? What makes me cry? I have to write what I like and like what I write, otherwise I can't ask anyone else to.

Of course I care about my audience. Of course I want them to like what I write. But Fred Rogers had it right when he taped his television show Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. When he looked at the camera, he imagined talking to only one child, not thousands. And that's how he so successfully achieved that special connection between himself and each and every viewer. Even today, at 40 years old, when I watch re-runs of Neighborhood, I can still feel that connection. I still believe he's talking to me, to my inner child.

One reader at a time. And it starts with you.


Elspeth Antonelli said...

It is a tricky balance, isn't it? I've discovered (to my shame) that many times when it's something I like but someone else doesn't, it's a case of me saying "Aren't I clever to have written this?" If I can make the argument that it shows another layer to a character, or moves the plot it stays. There are times I just can't make the case. This is humbling.

Elisa said...

I know what you mean. It's also a real test of ego when you have to let something go because it doesn't work, no matter how clever it may be.


Guinevere said...

I struggle with this too. I feel like it's hard to gauge my writing off myself - when I'm not sure if something makes sense or translates well outside of my own head. Sure, I totally get this joke my MC makes about attachment parenting or Dostoevsky, but... yeah... maybe not the rest of the world. When in doubt, I cut those (I accept that I might be a little weird). The questions that are controversial are a little more difficult - do I keep something because it might offend someone? It's definitely a fine balance, and probably an issue that never fades for writers no matter how experienced.

Soma said...

From the reader: Unless you, the author, deliberately want to please a certain group of people in a certain way, please do not think of us, the readers, while you are “creating” your fiction. This is not a grant proposal or a research paper or that annual report that the specific audience is expecting a set format or even a known content with some manipulated variations. We are not those proposal reviewers or the journal paper editors. The “true” readers are always ready to experiment. And who knows which creation will resonate at what frequency in a reader’s heart? Even a reader’s mindset may be different for different fiction by the same author. FI and OW have completely different tones. Of course FI is more popular, but OW has way more depth (okay, that’s me thinking) and it has made more impact on some people’s hearts than FI. If you had thought only about pleasing us with the some funny situations and “happily ever after” kind of ending with either of them, I think you would have lost us forever. So please don’t think of what we will say or what we will do, please write what you FEEL. If it’s a good story and good writing, we’ll read it and love it!

Michele Emrath said...

Loving the Fred Rogers analogy. A tough balance to find, to be sure. But an important one. It's nice to have a writing partner to bounce ideas off of!

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