Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Who Do I Write For (or, For Whom Do I Write, if you inisist)

by Sean Chercover

The posts by David Ellis (Compromising Positions) and Libby (I Hate To Write) raised some interesting questions.

Dave asked: would we continue to write, if we were not being paid for it. Like Dave, my answer is yes. I wrote before I was paid for it, and I would continue if I were no longer paid (although I wouldn't give up trying to find a buyer). I know it's a cliche, but writing helps keep me sane (okay, not sane, but less insane) so I will always write, money or no.

But. I would be far less disciplined about it and I would probably write a lot less. And I would get less enjoyment from it. I write to entertain, but also in the hope of communicating something about the way I see the world to my fellow humans. I'm sure my fellow humans would get along just fine without my stories, but I would miss the interaction, and the feeling that my "message in a bottle" has been received.

Because, for me (and I suspect, for most of you) writing is ultimately about communication. I've never been a writer of fan letters, so I was surprised as hell when I got published and started getting emails from complete strangers who were entertained or moved or thought-provoked or just annoyed by my work. It's incredibly gratifying to know that the message in a bottle was not only received, but that it motivated someone to sit down and write to me. And while I don't love being told that I'm a morally bankrupt pervert, even the angry letters are testimony to the power of fiction to provoke a response in the reader.

Communication requires someone on the receiving end. Obvious, I know, but it's a big part of why I write. So writing stories and putting them at the bottom of a drawer would not give me a fraction of the pleasure that I get from writing stories and sending them out into the world. For me, it's like asking: If you couldn't have sex anymore, would you still masturbate. Sure I would, (at every opportunity) but it just ain't as much fun.

Strange, though, that my answer to Dave's second question, (which I'm paraphrasing as, "Do you write with the reader in mind?") is ... not really.

Years ago, I would become paralyzed by thinking about the reader while writing. "Is this what agents/editors are looking for?" "Is it as good as [insert name of admired book] here?" "Will readers hate my protagonist if he does so-and-so?" The questions came at me, fast and furious, until all writing ground to a halt. To get anything written, I had to forget about the imaginary agents, editors, critics, and bookbuyers living in my head.

Somewhere along the way, I came across a piece of advice from a successful author (whose name is lost in memory). The writer said:

Just write the book that you would want to read.

It was the best advice I've ever read. I wrote it on a post-it, and stuck it to the wall above my monitor. And read it often.

And it's not as simple as it sounds. Writing the book you would want to read is not the same thing as writing the book you would want to have written. The book you would want to have written is likely to be far loftier, with Big Important Themes[TM] and elegant descriptive passages guaranteed to impress your mom.

The book you would want to read is likely to be leaner, sharper, and more entertaining.

So I guess I am writing with the reader in mind, after all. But the reader is me.

Libby admitted that, like Patricia Highsmith, she actually hates writing, that it brings her misery, but she loves the feeling of having written. Which just proves that you don't have to love doing it to be good at it. I certainly have days (weeks) of misery while writing, and I've discussed my problems with the blank page on this blog, but I do enjoy it. Actually, I love it. I really can't think of a better job in the world.

Which is why, I hope, I will always be able to get paid for it. And why I would do it anyway.


David Heinzmann said...

you're not morally bankrupt...

Dana King said...

You used the line I would have used: Write the book you want to read. That's what I've been doing, as I figured out a while ago that's all I control. The best I can do is to write what I'd like toread, and hope someone else would like to read it, too. The second part is pending.

You used another image that struck me personally, as, since I remain pre-published, I often feel as though my writing sessions are exercises in literary masturbation. You're right again: it ain't as much fun.

Mark Combes said...

Oh David, yes he is.... And God love him for it!

Sean, I have a slightly different take on the "writing for the reader" concept. My job as the story teller is to entertain the reader and thus I do work for the reader. If the reader finds me, say, morally bankrupt, one might assume that I've failed that reader. He (could it be a she?) plunked down their hard earned dough to buy my book, spent untold hours reading the thing, and they didn't get their moneys worth. So I need to work harder. But it's one of those "one hand clapping" kind of things in that you will never please every reader so, like the vastness of the universe, you keep trying to reach that unattainable feat. And to continue the theme. Yup, kind of like masturbation.

Sean Chercover said...

Mark - That way madness lies (at least for me). I can't try to please everybody. If I try to offend no one, I will not be allowed to say anything of consequence to me.

No one is offended by oatmeal, but it thrills no one. Tabasco offends some, but thrills others. I'd rather be Tabasco.

And, having read your work, I know that you aren't playing it as safe as you sound here. I loved Running Wrecked.

Mark Combes said...

Sean, it's really more of a mental trick for me to never become complacent about my writing. To always try to get better. Try different stuff. Improve on my weaknesses, etc.

I know I'll never please everyone and I do write the story I want to tell. But if this writing thing is just a self satisfying activity, then why try to get published? Just leave the manuscript in the drawer and start writing the next. But once you put your work out there, you have an obligation, I believe. It's no longer just your work.

David Ellis said...

Great post, Sean. I hear you on the connection with the reader. You live for it. That line, that paragraph, that scene where the reader (in your imagination, because rarely will they tell you) says, "Yes, exactly," or "Wow." Not as good as sex, but better than masturbation.