Thursday, December 27

Should A Writer Let Her Reader's Expectations Influence Her Artistic Judgement?

When Should A Writer Let Her Reader's Expectations Influence Her Artistic Judgement?

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?

Kris writes:
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.

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.
But don't worry, there's a way to prevent this. All you need to do is ...

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.

Kris writes:
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.
 .  .  .  .
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.
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.

As Kris writes:
Write. Finish what you write, and do your best to get it into the right hands, whatever that means for you.

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.
Have you let fan expectations influence what you write? What do you think of Kris' advice?

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.


  1. This is the most fantastic article i have read in weeks! I have discussed this with you and others in G+, and this is MY viewpoint too. But I was having a hard time locking down my position, as I am not a published, professional writer. But you are. And we agree.
    THANK YOU!!!

    1. Glad you liked it Lewis! As always, thanks for the feedback. :-)

  2. Well, I'm not quite to the point needing to decide on pen names and make marketing decisions, but these are still great points to consider while in the writing stage. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for your feedback Jennifer.

      I'm not sure if this will be useful, but a friend of mine mentioned she sometimes uses the first and last names of her favorite characters (other writer's, not hers). She takes the first name of one and the last name of another.

      I've been meaning to try it out.

  3. As a reader, not a published author, Kris' advice sounds good to me. It's going to depend on the unique circumstances--how strong fan opinion is and what the writer's bottomline is. If the goal is to sell as many books as possible, then an author may want to weigh fan opinion more. If the primary goal is to stay true to an artistic dream, regardless of the monetary consequences, then fan opinion matters less.

    While reading the three prong approach, I thought about J.K. Rowling's foray into a new genre with "A Causual Vacancy," which received mixed reviews. I haven't read it yet, but I wonder whether there would have been a more positive response had J.K. Rowling followed Step 3 and had written under a pen name (keeping it a secret at first). However, the bottomline was to sell books at the highest possible price, and she accomplishes that best as J.K. Rowling, not as some unknown person.

    Overall, though, it's a pretty good problem to have because it means you've got fans who care. Not all authors can say that.

    1. "Overall, though, it's a pretty good problem to have because it means you've got fans who care."

      Very true!

      You raise a good point about "A Casual Vacancy". It is such a radical departure from her usual style that it would have been a good idea to publish it under a pen name. But of course not as many copies would have been sold and read.

      I'm sure there was a financial aspect to the decision but I also think ... well, writers want their stories to be read. To be shared and enjoyed.

      Even if they're depressing as hell. ;)

  4. I love this, because it's important to stay true to your muse, that inner voice that drives your writing, but as a reader I completely understand the need for proper branding. I don't know if that necessarily indicates a whole new pen name for each genre, but it certainly indicates a different cover treatment, blurb, and maybe a couple blog posts for your devoted fans warning them that this is a divergence from what they're used to. E.G. Kiersten White wrote the Paranormalcy trilogy which I absolutely loved for its light-hearted voice, wit, and magic. Her new book Mind Games is different. I haven't read it yet and I'm a little afraid to, which I should be because it isn't Paranormalcy. She did a great job with branding it differently while still keeping her name on it. If I do read it, I won't feel betrayed or disappointed. I know what to expect.

    Excellent article!

    1. Thanks Katrina! Kiersten White is a great example, thank you. Branding IS important. The cover of Mind Games has a completely different feel from her other books.


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