Today Kris Rusch published another thought provoking article on the business of writing, one which raised the question: When should writers let fan preferences influence their creative decisions?
First, an example. Kris mentions The Hobbit (some fans of the books think the movie is too violent, some fans of Lord of the Rings don't like all the singing) and Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise is great but a man-mountain he is not) but there are many more. For instance, some fans of The Walking Dead thought there was too much talk and not enough action--and definitely not enough zombies.
It's true that you can't please everyone all the time, but when should you take your fans' likes into account when you're writing/creating? How much should their preferences, their love of the world(s) you've created influence your creative decisions?
At what point should fans influence a work of art? Should the writer/director/artist take fans into consideration, and if so, when?
That is probably the toughest question to answer of all.
Why Do You Write: The Economics of Creation
One way of looking at this is to say that there are two kinds of writers: business folks and artists. The former write solely for money--art be damned--while the latter do it for personal reasons such as the pure thrill of creation.
But I think that's a false dichotomy.
On some level, even the most refined artist is also a business person--they need food to eat and a place to sleep, just like everyone else--and the most hard-nosed business person ... well, the very act of writing tends (I feel) to bare the soul. I don't think it's possible to create a story and commit it to paper (electronic file, etc.) without baring ones soul, even if only a little.
But saying that doesn't help. It doesn't address the question: To what extent should you take your fans' preferences into account when you write?
Kris' solution: Don't choose. She outlines three ways writers can write exactly what they want and make their fans happy.
1. Write what you, the writer, want to write
Let's say you're writing a romance, the fifth book in a series. Let's further say that the first four books had happy-ever-after endings and that absolutely no one died or even chipped a nail.
In your fifth book your protagonist feels darker, she's making some potentially destructive choices, choices which will mean the death of one of your other characters. Choices which will mean there is no happily-ever-after ending.
What should you do? Should you wrestle her back to your outline and nix the edginess? If you do, you may get writer's block or the story might dry up on you.
Or it might not. I don't know. I think that sort of thing depends on the writer, but there's an alternative: Write the story your muse is pushing you to write, but don't publish it as part of that romance series. Instead, turn it into another series or a standalone.
I'm not sure if this would have been an option ten, or even five, years ago but today a writer has the opportunity to write the book her muse is dictating while at the same time respecting fan expectations. Nowadays there's no reason why a romance writer couldn't depart from expectations and write a horror. Here's the key: Make sure your fans know what to expect when they pick up a book you've written.
Keep your series characters, your series world, consistent. In other words ...
2. Don't set your readers up for disappointment: be clear about what you've written
Readers have expectations. If someone picks up your book thinking it's, say, a romance and it's a horror you're going to alienate a potential fan, and that'll be the case even if it was the best book ever written.
Kris gives a terrific example of how her expectations as a reader were violated:
More than once, I’ve read something “light” only to be betrayed by it. The example I use when I’m teaching is this: On a particularly difficult trip to the Midwest, I was reading a Nora Roberts romance novel in a Perkin’s Restaurant when—in the very center of the book—Roberts killed a baby. It was a plot point, it was on-screen, and it was ugly. I burst into tears and would have flung the book across the restaurant if I had a little less self-control.But don't worry, there's a way to prevent this. All you need to do is ...
That was the last thing I needed on that trip.
Did it stop me from being a fan of hers? No, not at all. But I became a more cautious fan. And when I needed one of those light, escapist reads, I avoided her books.
3. Brand each book
A key part of respecting reader expectations is branding.
For each kind of book you write (scifi, horror, mystery, romance, etc.) set up a different pen name. You don't have to be secretive about your pen-names, they're just another way to tell readers what to expect in terms of a book's content. If one of your readers picks up a Samantha Raven book they'll know to expect a horror while if they see a Priscilla Frillbottoms book they'll expect a romance.
Communication is part of the key. Before indie publishing, I did a lot of my communicating via byline and branding. Kristine Kathryn Rusch is an eclectic writer whose work covers the gamut of genres and emotions, but tends toward mystery and science fiction or fantasy (sometimes in combination). Kristine Grayson is always light read, with little or no violence and more often than not a happy ending.To sum up: Regardless of what's currently popular or what fans would like, write what you want to write. This won't cost you readers--in fact it'll probably attract them--just make sure it's clear what kind of book you've written. Also, don't underestimate the value of a pen name to help brand a book.
. . . .I didn’t want my Grayson fans to pick up my Fey series, which is also fantasy, only to discover horrific violence, melting people and flaying skin. I knew, from personal experience, that it would piss fans off. I’d rather let them choose to read both Grayson and Rusch, rather than surprise them with a dead baby scene in the middle of a very sad real life day.
As Kris writes:
Write. Finish what you write, and do your best to get it into the right hands, whatever that means for you.Have you let fan expectations influence what you write? What do you think of Kris' advice?
And most of all—have fun. The more you enjoy what you do, the more your fans will—no matter what part of your writing they like best.
Other articles you might like:- Getting Ready for 2013: A Writer's Guide
- Writing And Publishing in 2013: How To Survive And Thrive
- Writing in 2013: Bend don't break
Photo credit: "a dog and it's boss" by Pixel Addict under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0.