Know Thyself. (And Thy Audience.)
An author must write what pleases them, first and foremost. You will find that advice all over the writing world. The concept does have its detractors, though. You’ll also find people advising authors to determine what is selling, and to replicate it as much as possible in as little time as possible. I wish I could say that such an approach never worked, but of course it does. It probably doesn’t lead to long-term success as often as would a more authentic approach to one’s material, but the fact is some authors stumble into fame and even money by catering to the trends of the times. We all know it’s true, or we should know it’s true. Formulas to capitalize on this model abound. With some luck, one could work for you, let’s be frank.
If you’re like me at all, however, you don’t consider mass creating cookie-cutter stories in which you do not believe every few months in hopes of catching a passing gravy train a satisfying writer’s life.
This sometimes effective extreme has a polar opposite that’s just as problematic to my aspirations as a writer. This is the, “I don’t care if anyone else ever likes or even reads what I write. I do it for myself, and the experience only,” camp. I’m somewhat more sympathetic with this view, though I am also skeptical. Do I feel that some people write for therapeutic purposes, and have no desire for anyone to ever see what they have written? Yes. Do I believe that everyone who says this truly doesn’t care if anyone reads their work? No.
When you care about what you’re writing, it’s hard work. Hard work worth doing, but it is a labor. To go through all that a dedicated author goes through only to have it ignored en mass is not, I would guess, most author’s idea of success. It certainly isn’t mine.
All this by way of saying that I do pursue stories that I myself believe in, that speak to me as the author, ones that I would enjoy writing. Yet that isn’t the only criteria. In the end, I want my work to be read and enjoyed by other people. Making money for doing so would be excellent, I won’t deny that. Yet if I write something that moves enough people the money will come, eventually.
That’s why even as I pursue fiction first and foremost that speaks to me, I have to also consider readers. I have plenty of stories I’ve thought about writing that I’ve ultimately deemed “too internal,” meaning that they probably work best within my own thought patterns. True, movements have been started by people presenting to the public untried, experimental forms of fiction which might have been considered “too internal.” It’s not that I never share such of my writings with the world. Yet I don’t feel that I’m robbing myself of artistic merit by asking myself if the story I have in mind is likely to speak to other people. (As opposed to thinking this may be weird enough to start a movement of some kind.)
How do I determine if an idea is likely to appeal to readers? That’s the golden question for most writers, isn’t it? If we could answer that every time, there would be no reason to worry about publication or agents or that sort of thing, would there? But we try to make educated guesses.
I don’t have a strict set of questions I ask myself as to the appeal of my fiction. Some common considerations though involve whether I’m exploring something that is near universal in the human experience. Or, like my upcoming novel, Flowers of Dionysus, I try to determine if there may be a definable niche of people to whom this particular story with these characters would speak loudest. (In this case, theatre geeks and people in the arts who believe in a touch of the fantasy.)
I also think of the language of the piece as it’s evolving. I enjoy playing with words, and developing complicated sentences at times. I think all writers probably do. Same with metaphor. Most good writing probably needs a bit of metaphor. Yet if that sort of writing seems more likely to alienate most readers as opposed to drawing them into the world I have created, I generally feel I’ve missed the point of my fiction. I want readers to experience something, as opposed to study something. In the end, if there is some kind of measuring stick, that might be it for me. (Though of course even that changes over time.)
So, when writing fiction I try to start with something that matters to me. I say try because the temptation is still there to think of something that will have wide appeal, or impress high school English teachers first. Yet once I get past that temptation and listen to what my soul wants to say in a story, I still ponder if it has the potential to touch others before I commit.
In this lonely, mysterious, heartbreaking, mind-numbing chaotic swirl of business and imagination that is authorship, I like to think my standard isn’t a horrible place to begin to find some purpose. Do you?