How are your readers using your stories?

What you think you're doing when you write... and what you're really doing

How are your readers using your stories?

The most tempting mistake made by an author of stories, fictional or non-fictional, is the myth that the quality of our work matters.

"What? Why wouldn't quality matter? Of course it matters!"

And of course it does. A minimal competence in the craft and a basic familiarity with the English language are prerequisites. That isn't in question.

That isn't the point.

Many bright, over-qualified, over-credentialed, grammar-obsessed writers out there will never publish a single story in any form. Of those that do, most will produce that one, or a small handful, and sell less than 1000 books in a lifetime.

Meanwhile, the low-brow "genre fiction" catering to the proles sells books in the tens of thousands, creating memorable characters, ideas that shape the culture, and often moving on into other media like film and TV.

The most natural thing to focus on is what we think we have control over: the "quality" of what we do/make/write. But the assumption is that the quality of what WE do maps directly to quality for the end-user, and this is rarely the case.

It is not that our users (whether they are our readers, app users, conference attendees, etc.) don't appreciate quality... but it is never OUR quality that matters, it is the quality of what our users are able to do as a result.

Kathy Sierra

Creative works serve a function for us as human beings – for us as creators and for us as consumers.

The biggest mistake you, the creator, can make is to confuse the two. What YOU want isn't the same thing as what your readers want.

Does that sound like sacrilege to you? Art's supposed to be outside the realm of pragmatic interests. Art springs from supernatural, divine, or at least extra-ordinary well-springs of creative power.

No argument there.

You can (and should) still look at your creative work from the standpoint of what it does.

Why?

Readers don't read your books for English lessons. They aren't there because your perfect grammar and sentence construction warms their shy cockles. They don't pick up your latest novel in order to be blown away by the struggle and the torment and the time it took your battered soul to create.

What’s it actually there for? Decoration? Showing off? A conversation starter? An ice breaker? A way of telling a story? Something to brighten up the room? A symbol of social status? An expression of individual worldview? An expression of emotion? A totem to remind oneself of something inspirational and/or important? Perhaps a bit of all these?

Hugh MacLeod, gapingvoid.com

Readers read your stories because your stories do something for them.

It might be that your book is that book – the one that all the hot-shot critics and NYC editors (the few of those left) rave about – in which case your work signifies status to a certain in-group. If you're one of the elect few willing and ready to bow at the altar of the failing "OldPub" culture, this could be you – if you've built the right network and the stars align over sunken R'lyeh.

For most of us writers, the "what it does" comes down to a single word.

Entertainment.

Our readers want a few minutes of escape from the drag of their boring lives.

To get even more abstract, readers want an experience built up of specific emotions. Readers are much like movie-goers and game-players in that respect.

One more reason to think twice about letting geek-fandoms give you "feedback" to shape your writing (a post for another day).

It would be to your advantage, writer, to think of yourself as an entertainer first. Forget about the medium of the telling and get on with the telling.

What business are you really in?


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