This new age of social media makes it easier than ever for readers and writers to interact. Whether via reviews posted online, comments on a blog, forum discussions, Facebook or twitter, authors now have the opportunity to engage with their readers via multiple direct lines of communication.
This is generally fun for the readers. For authors, it can be a real Pandora’s box. An open channel of communication has no filter, and along with the good comes the bad. If you’re the type to read reviews, you have to be able to swallow the negative ones as easily as the glowing ones to maintain any measure of self-worth. If you’re going to interact with readers online, you have to be willing to answer those tough questions with as much honesty as the simple ones—or be called out for it.
And if you engage, how much are you (or your story) changed by the interaction? Can you really receive insightful criticism from a reader who clearly understands your story and not let their critique influence your future work?
One of my readers presented this question to me this week:
“This thread caught my attention mostly because of your willingness to change your work based on feedback from your readers…but how much should we as readers influence your work? I’m not sure this new world of interacting with writers gives the best result…”
This question so fascinated me that I felt it deserved a blog post to discuss my thoughts in reply.
The situation referenced above involved a scene with Isabel and Pelas, two characters in Paths of Alir, book three of my epic fantasy series A Pattern of Shadow & Light. This was an emotionally charged interaction dealing with difficult issues. I wrote the scene because of the valuable moral and philosophical questions it opened for further exploration, but I knew from the outset that it would upset some readers.
The ability to assume viewpoints and write from these points of view is vital for any author—it’s part and parcel to making characters appear real to the reader. But just as important is the ability to assume the viewpoint of the reader as they’re reading the scene. Writing is communication, and communication by definition includes a sort of “duplication” of what is being communicated. If I say “apples” and you hear “oranges,” we haven’t really communicated because there’s no understanding, no duplication, there.
Part of my job as an author is to ensure that my communication (via my characters’ actions and viewpoints) is understood and correctly received by the reader. To do this, I try to assume as many possible reader viewpoints as possible. I try to envision how readers will interpret each scene; I ask myself what questions the scene will engender, what difficulties it will present. I try to anticipate my readers’ questions, confusions and emotional responses.
Obviously, I cannot assume every point of view—there are as many points of view as there are people in this world—but I have a responsibility to assume as many viewpoints as possible in order to ensure my communication is received the way I want it to be received.
When writing the scene with Isabel and Pelas, I missed a vital point of view; I didn’t anticipate that readers might interpret the scene in this particular way. None of my beta readers had even beeped on this viewpoint. Thus, when I learned that a reader had a particularly strong emotional response to the scene based on a mistaken understanding of my intention for the scene, I felt a responsibility to make some alterations so that future readers could in no way land upon the same interpretation.
If I’m doing my job, the emotional responses you have as a reader, the thoughts you have and the questions you have are exactly the responses, thoughts and questions I intended you to have. I’m generally good at my job.
The situation with Isabel and Pelas was an isolated occurrence—I’ve never before or since changed the story as a result of a reader’s interpretation. But it still begs the question: would I be willing to make changes to other scenes based on reader interpretation (or misinterpretation)?
Dialogue with my readers offers a window into new and sometimes unique perspectives on my story. Do these perspectives change my view of the story or the characters. Generally not. I’m more inclined to answer criticism with further explanation than by questioning my original choices.
What the reader-author interaction offers is more of those innumerable reader viewpoints to take into account as I’m writing. For example, if a reader tells me they don’t understand why a character did something, I can make sure their confusion is resolved in a later chapter (or the next book). If I know readers might interpret a scene a certain way, I can include explanations that steer them in a specific direction—away from that unwanted interpretation. I can prevent those questions or confusions with well-placed answers offered before the reader even has those questions and thereby head off unintended reactions or conclusions.
This is all part of anticipating the reader and is a pivotal element of a well written novel. You have to be able to anticipate in order to influence.
With all this said, maintaining a close author-reader interaction is a perilous path to walk. The more an author engages in dialogue and discussion with readers, the closer he or she skirts that edge where criticism becomes harmful and interaction, invasive. You have to have a firm moral conviction about your characters and their choices, about your story, and your message. You need iron-clad integrity.
But I believe the author is responsible to a large degree for the reactions his/her readers have to his story—through intention or neglect of assuming enough viewpoints, the author did somehow bring about those reactions. Personally, I take that responsibility very seriously.
What are your thoughts? How engaged should an author be with his or her fans? How much should they let this interaction influence their work? How much should they feel responsible for the effect their story has on readers?
I posted this same response on Facebook, FYI.
I think you answered the question pretty well. On the one hand, I appreciate authors who write to get things off of their chest/out of their head. David Eddings and George R. R. Martin are two examples – David wrote books for himself, from what I understand, and the popularity was a byproduct; and the more that his readers froth at the mouth over plot twists and character deaths, the more George R. R. Martin giggles.
On the OTHER hand, I’m fairly sure you DO try to make some sort of living doing what you do; and as such, you probably don’t want to piss EVERYONE off as you write. LOL
The biggest problem for me is when people half-reveal a shadowed reference to what could or could not be…and then either attempt to resolve it *BOOKS* later, or worse yet, again reference said half-revealed shadowned reference….in a shadowy way to perpetuate a plot twist. Robert Jordan is an excellent example. When you have entire BOOKS that feel like they’re comprised of nothing other than women sniffing at men and pulling their braids, it drives you freaking bonkers, actually causing one to forget some of the plot.
This said, where you (Melissa) are concerned, I’ve not yet encountered any issue with that – if you reveal a hint to a plot twist, you’ve resolved it a book to a book and a half later at most.
I would also like to point out one obvious thing – if you have readers showing up at your door unannounced with flowers, that’s probably too much reader interaction. I can’t speak for everyone but I try to be online exactly as I am in real life; I’ve met no less than Pope John Paul II, as well as other celebrities and figures (George H. W. Bush, for example), and I treat them like normal people. I realize they have limits, and I realize that deigning to talk to their fans does NOT equate to wanting to be besties with them. I’ve forged solid relationships (friendships) with online and real-life figures somehow, but I’ve done so because I treat them as I want to be treated – with respect and kindness, as actual people whose personalities go FAR deeper than fans imagine.
One example was when my wife and I were on our honeymoon. I turned the corner in some artsy-fartsy store and literally ran smack into Jakob Dylan of Wallflowers fame. I said excuse me, and then raised an eyebrow as I recognized him. He said “shhh” under his breath, and I said “ah….” and nodded to him.
A few moments later I walked outside and saw him standing around admiring the view. I walked over and nonchalantly admired it along with him. He asked me “You do know who I am?” I said “Yep….I also know you want anonymity as much as the next guy.”
He told me “Man, you have NO idea how much I appreciate the fact that you realize this.” He asked me if I wanted anything from him in thanks; I told him it was OK, that it was neat to have met him. I later almost got murdered by my mom and sister for this fact, but hey – they’re regular people.
This is a very interesting question. My pragmatic view: There needs to be a paradigm shift. In the age of digital format distribution, self publishing, access to immediate quantitative and qualitative feedback, why would independent authors ignore one of their few advantages, the ability to continually refine their product? Should reader feedback influence authors? – only if they want to produce better work. The idea that modern great authors create in a cone of silence is a myth. For “signed” authors, between family, friends, agents, multiple editors and three or four phases of beta, those authors just have the resources to change their books more before publication rather than after, a printing/distribution necessity. Back in 2004, even after huge sales, critical acclaim and positive reviews by Robin Hobb, Brandon Sanderson who has sold more than 15M books was still posting individual chapters on upcoming books on his blog. Sanderson’s dozens of beta readers have a book for 6 weeks, can monitor changes and are encouraged to share observations as a group on every aspect of the novel (including cultural and character behavior impact) only ignoring grammar and spelling, this is one of three beta stages.
How does an independent, self published author achieve the same level of scrutiny and opportunity for refinement? They can’t unless they accept that most of the books they sell live in the digital, not physical world and leverage that advantage. They have he ability to do what authors have always wanted to do but were limited by the nature of printing and distribution, create the best book possible. I believe continued refinement isn’t a mark of failure or capitulation, it’s taking the lemons of limited resources associated with self publishing and turning them into lemonade. Where being “signed” adds muscle, being independent and digital gives an author control and the freedom to adapt.
The real question is if writing is a business or hobby for the author. Is the goal to create a boutique product a small group of friends and family enjoy or to sell a product to a growing consumer base? Most businesses pay for the type of feedback authors, by the nature of their product get for free.
A master chef at work, who got consistent feedback a creation was too spicy to enjoy wouldn’t even consider “creative integrity” before adjusting the spice level, why should authors be any different?
If writing is a hobby, the interaction should be in line with the motivations of a hobby. Interactions with people the author enjoys; validates views they already hold, a limited group of devoted advocates with who the author can share insights and ideas with about their favorite characters. These interactions should be stress free, without criticism or conflict.
If it’s a business, the trajectory of the product will give important insight into if an author should engage more or less. In general more feedback and opinion is better, this http://www.tor.com/blogs/2014/02/beta-reading-words-of-radiance blog post demonstrates how much even the most successful authors solicit more rather than less feedback. They employ substantive editors (do you really want to do that people), alpha, beta and gamma readers, in addition to their inner circle. Sanderson has created a whole google documents feedback sharing infrastructure to solicit feedback on the front side of the process. As a result his finished product has fully explored multiple responses and perspectives before he falls in love with the finished product.
More or Less?
If the last book in a series is selling like hotcakes, has a high volume of new unique reader reviews, high sales rankings, there is a high adoption rate from the previous books, increasing website traffic the author should limit their in depth interactions to whatever groups and methods helped shape and influence previous books.
If the latest book has slow sales, a trickle of reviews or reviews mostly a subset of previous reviewers, low sales ranking, a low adoption rate- (current book sold as a % of first book sales), decreasing website traffic the author should consider why their product isn’t maintaining or growing readers and adjust accordingly. If lucky, that answer will usually be found in consumer feedback. If unlucky, the consumer will abandon the product without comment.
I have regular communication with four authors, two on this list http://asoiaf.westeros.org/index.php/topic/95903-the-sff-all-time-sales-list/
What those two have in common is being great story tellers, a habit of asking questions, attention to detail and a robust feedback and revision process that makes a difference.
I originally had 2-3 personal anecdotes but deleted for length
Engaging with readers is the magical dimension that gives your book life and worth; listen and learn!
I love this sentiment, Christina, and quite concur! 🙂
In response to a few of the questions but not by any means a sufficient answer:
Be as open to their willing conversation as time will allow. Aside from reading, they will be your most direct route to finally contenting some long and frustratingly complex questions. Of course, we know that when one question seems to be answered another’s shadow can be found looming sending our elation back to obscurity once again. And so the dance shall ever be as long as we continue to brave the waters of conversation. It’s purpose is not to present to us what we seek but rather, to illuminate what we didn’t know was possible. Just when you feel as though you may be overwhelmed and lost beyond recognition, you must remember an aspect of your being that is as essential to living as breathing: your ability to write. As soon as your mind is revealed on the canvas, you find yourself once again; although you are not quite the same as you once were, you are not wholly different either. You are the improved you that will be able to write with that much more honesty and clarity. The extra exerted dash of clarity to help filter the ambiguity of honesty. This is the true gift an audience brings.
In my honest opinion, I do not think you can control the amount these interactions will influence your work. In order for us to do that, we must split our self into two simultaneous beings (S1 and S2) and leave a third (S0) to observe as witness/ reader. The two must continue on, while the third awaits, and at the conclusion must choose the reality he/she wishes to continue with based on which book he finds to be most interesting. For S1, we will destine his path to be the one in which he seeks no interaction. For S2, we will destine his path to be the one in which he allows the interaction. We will define S0’s mission to simply read the book when each respective self has finished and to interpret which way he sees as the better course. Here is where it must end. There are too numerous uncertainties to adequately form a coherent choice, yet you may be able to glimpse the impact one decision can have on your life. Say, you choose to continue with the self that chose to interact with his followers/ fans. You find that in this life, someone close to you has recently passed away, but having been so preoccupied with your own life, you were unable to be close at hand in their last days. The rest of your days are plagued with regret, wishing for the chance to go back and take another road, another path. Forsaking your #1 Bestseller seems inconsequential to having just one more conversation with them.
There is a peril when walking the line of what-if. This is a reminder to stay present and engaged and not far off and detached. The complexity of surmising the fullness of this scenario is daunting at the least, but I believe it is unnecessary. That we could even do such a thing is one thing; that we would hinge our choice in path on the greatness of one aspect of that furthered life is another. Everything in life influences us. We have no choice in the matter; our senses the guides, our minds the interpreter, and our actions the character.
With our writing we influence others. That is a sure thing. But, I would not be willing to assume responsibility for their actions based upon what I have written. I would not be willing to assume responsibility, because is do not blame anyone other than myself for my actions. If this is a worry, simply add a disclaimer reminding readers to not be too hasty when digesting new ideas.
Thank you for the thought provoking questions.
Beautifully put, Ethan. Thank you so much for your thought-provoking contribution to the conversation. You’ve given me much to think about.
Aspiring author, working on first manuscript. My personal approach will be to have zero author/reader interaction. To me, I have come to see all such things as peering behind the curtain and ruining the magic. Also, I tend to think that if a reader didn’t get something, it simply wasn’t written correctly and/or editors and beta readers didn’t catch it. There are as many perspectives as there are people, and I don’t think a writer can be expected to account for them all.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this topic, Patrick. Good luck with your WIP!