Writing for Readers (The Author’s Dilemma)

I followed a link back to a disgruntled reader’s comments about Memory of Fire, the first of the WORLD GATES novels, because the little Technorati link included the line that she was never picking up another one of my books, and I was curious about what I had done to so anger her.

It wasn’t what I thought. The object of her ire was not the quality of my writing, or issues she had with my plotting or pacing, or complaints about stupid mistakes. She was writing me off forever because of subject matter.

In a fantasy novel, I had dared to include a heroine who was a mother, had dared not to make her overweight and had permitted her to be rather pleased that, at the age of thirty-something and with a two-year-old kid, her butt and her stomach looked pretty good. The book included a little kid, something offensive to this reader. It also included not one but two threads in which people started exploring the possibilities of falling in love with other people. I had dared to include real-world elements that crossed over into a fantasy universe and back again.

I had done these things in a fantasy novel, oh horrors — where as everyone knows you can only write about elves and castles and dragons and brave knights and trolls. Or whatever the hell it was she expected to find when she picked up the book.

But see — for the writer, subject matter is not really what you write. It’s who you are.

If I wrote the book this reader wanted, the heroine would be overweight, childless, preferably infertile, and there would be no hint that she might want to fall in love with anyone of either gender, or that anyone of either gender might be attracted to her.

And that is not my book to write. I don’t know what it would be like to be that character, and while I could extrapolate, and maybe come to understand or like the protagonist, the character this woman wants to read belongs to someone who knows her intimately, and wants to know her intimately.

That isn’t me.

I already have other stories that are mine to write. I know first-hand about dealing with trauma and tragedy, miscarriage, childbirth, love and betrayal, death and loss, motherhood and spousehood, marriage and divorce and remarriage, hope and failure and triumph in endless cycles. I know ambition pretty well, and passion and desire. I know what being terrified is like; I know what thinking you’re going to die right now is like; and while I know despair, I also know how it feels to beat that bastard back into its cage.

So I write about kids, about falling in and out of love, about fear and the conquering of fear. I write about being postpartum late thirty-something with a flat stomach and a nice butt because I’ve been there, and it was fun to be there. God knows I’m not there now, but I like where I am, too, so that’s okay. The kids in my books are real kids, because I wrote fictional versions of my kids, sometimes even stealing an at-the-moment quote from one or the other of them, and roleplaying with them to find out what they might do in some very odd situations. (In Minerva Wakes, for example, the “stinky fish” episode is what my then-very-small son who’s now in the Air Force, would have done when faced with the problem I presented to him.

I write about faith — finding it and losing it — because I have been both places and learned something from the journey. I write about hope. About the courage that lives inside of abject terror. These are the subjects that matter to me, these are the deeply personal bits and pieces of my life that I value most — and so when I offer them in fictional form, I believe they are the best of what I have to give to someone else.

I write about dragons and castles and magical places, too, because I love those things. I love the the way fantasy can be wrapped around the world of today and made relevant, the way the moment we live in now can be transmuted through the lens of the fantastic into something grand and terrifying that we can nevertheless bear to look at honestly and without flinching … because it is not us, but simply us-if-we-had-been-someone-else. That, because it both is and is not us, fantasy drawn from real life can resonate long after the reader closes the book. Can give my reader something to keep after the story is done.

To write personally, though, I’ve discovered that I cannot write to readers. Because for every reader who is facing the same questions I face, there are a dozen others who have no interest in those questions. For every risk I take, there are readers who want to take that risk with me, but so many more who won’t read any book in first person, or any book with a woman main character, on any book that includes children or some suggestion that people might want to fall in love. Or includes dragons and castles. Or the here and now.

I cannot write to chase numbers and trends, or allow myself to be constantly and painfully torn between the desire to see the story be what it can be, and the need to make it like something it is unlike in order to conform to “what’s hot right now” (but which won’t be in six months, when the book is done).

I want to be constantly pushing myself to write better, to do more, to find new places and new challenges, whereas most readers don’t want new or different or challenging at all. Most readers desire that a book they loved before be repeated as closely as possible, so they can experience it again, only brand new. The writer, the readers, the story, and the publication process are therefore all constantly at war with each other, with each of us wanting to go in a specific direction and all of those directions demanding sacrifices that no one going in the other directions wants to make.

I’ve learned that Shakespeare was right when in Hamlet he wrote, “Unto your own self be true, because as long as night doth follow day thou cans’t not be false to any man.” So I tell what I have found to be true. But not everyone will want the truths that I have found. They will have to go their own way, asking the questions that are theirs to ask until they find writers who share their questions and their longings, and who might offer answers that they find both true and acceptable.

In the end, I can only write to myself, asking my questions, constantly poking my psyche for painful places and then putting my pain, in altered forms, onto the page, and then demanding of my characters all that they can give to face that altered pain and deal with it in their own ways, while offering up all their many answers. I keep the needs of the other warring forces in mind as I do this — the readers and the publishing process and the story. I do my best to play fair, and to be honest, but my pain is not everyone’s pain, my stories are not everyone’s stories, and when I’m fighting from word to word, the best I can do is be true to myself as I struggle to figure out whose turn has come ’round among my four fierce armies to sacrifice next. I hope that I choose wisely, I hope that I play fairly, but in the end, all I have to offer is me.

And that’s not what everyone wants, nor will it ever be.

P.S. If you’re a writer and you want to build the path to the novels you and you alone can write, I teach that in my How to Write a Novel class. [link opens in new tab]

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30 responses to “Writing for Readers (The Author’s Dilemma)”

  1. Marya Miller Avatar

    I love your writing *because* I never know what story I will get–but I know it will always be written with integrity, and while some things will break my heart, I still trust your stories more than anybody’s except Terry Pratchett’s. I also know I will identify deeply with at least one character (even if that character isn’t a main one). And I love that you put real-life elements and pain and joy and everything in between in your fantasy novels. I remember your characters long after I remember the story, sometimes.

    And I’m also glad to hear you say this, because motherhood, birth, death, loss of faith, kids, life are also big parts of my Dragonish series–the heroine of my first book is a 97-year-old Granny. It was a big eye-opener to me when a beta reader complained that the “everyday” tone of language wasn’t “allowed” in “high fantasy”. (?) (Perhaps mine is “low fantasy”).

  2. Kira Avatar

    I’m a reader, I love books. They make me happy and they give me lots to think about. Here’s why I write. Every story I read I think about how it may have been different if I were to write on the same subject. Now, I’m not saying I’m any better or worse I just have different viewpoints and ideas. Because what may thrill me may bore them and what may bore them may thrill me. You may replace thrill and bore with whatever words you like. (terrify, excite, etc)

    I think the same subject matter gives different people different feelings. But if you’re true to yourself, you will find that others like you will absolutely love you for it.

  3. Frank Da Horta Avatar
    Frank Da Horta

    After trolling the internet I have come to the conclusion that writing takes up your whole life! No reader has any wright in a story, they only have a read. I love your blog thank you for it.


  4. Harsha Avatar

    Thanks for the great post, Holly 🙂

    It’s impossible to please everyone. I guess that if you involve many genres in a book, you please more people, but please them to a lesser extent

    1. Holly Avatar

      This seems logical, but in general, you please fewer people, because most people don’t like to have their genres mixed with genres they don’t usually read. So the book will reach FEWER readers than a straight genre tale. I know this about my own writing going in, and write the stories I want to read. The readers who choose to read me regularly do so because what I do is what they want to read, too.

  5. hagar Avatar

    That post was just plain great writing. ‘Nuff said.

  6. BabyGirl1940 Avatar

    Different genre, but one of Louis L’Amour’s most loved characters walked into one of his stories and refused to leave. While you must take control, there are occasions when the wonderful happens and your muse offers a character you simply must keep.

    Good article. I enjoyed reading it!

  7. Diana Avatar

    So true – if you’re going to say something worth saying – it is bound to offend someone, somewhere. So you may as well be brave and say what you really think and feel. Anything else and you may as well be a very trained parrot.

  8. Elizabeth Avatar

    You are writing with integrity. It’s difficult for some to see reality reflected in a “magic” mirror, but that’s far longer lasting and more effective than novels stocked with two-dimensional characters who are either artificially perfect or artificially flawed. This individual’s response to your character speaks more to the reader’s personal hangups (and possibly need for self-examination and/or therapy). Clearly you touched a nerve—well done! Fantasy allows a safe environment for exploring faith, family, relationships, and other realities in a meaningful way. Thanks for posting.

  9. David Avatar

    I don’t read your novels because I want to see myself in the characters, i will more than likely never be a woman or a mother. There are things I can relate to, such as being able to see your faults and how time has affected you and be proud of who you are even if sometimes you think about who you could have been.

    I read your novels because sometimes I want the perspective of someone completely different from me, that I can recognize as having real concerns and real faults and real pride in things. If I want stories about me, about the me I could be, or the me I know I will never be, I will write those myself. I know me, I assume much about my own characters and their motivations. And even then they are usually based on people I know.

    For the record, the only issue I had with that novel was your character was remembering her survival training from the Air Force. Survival training is not a standard training program for most members. At first, this made me cringe and have to remind myself, it is something the average person would know, who hasn’t been there. It then made me want to find out what career field she could have been in that would actually have given her that training.

    Keep up the good work, every novel from you, for me, is an auto-buy. Ever since reading about a character listening to Icehouse, and a boy trying not to give up his secrets by singing They Might be Giants to himself to prevent his mind from being read. It’s the details, the fleshing out of the characters, that keep me coming back.

    1. Holly Avatar

      Both my husband and my son had survival training in the AF. I know it’s not standard, but it is common.

      1. Mildred R Holmes Avatar

        It’s not just in the Air Force. There are a lot of vets where I live. I listen to them talk sometimes.

  10. Elaine Milner Avatar
    Elaine Milner

    It’s never possible to please everybody, and nobody should expect it. We must write from who we are and our life experiences. If we don’t, our stories will be dead. You’ve given a very good and honest presentation that can help all of us, because we’re all going to get some comments like that if we publish anything. Thank you, Holly.

  11. Patti Avatar

    Agreeing with Nikki above. This piece is great – well written. But more importantly, gives a depth and perspective to writing that touches the hearts and souls of writers. Thank you for this offering.

  12. Nikki McCormack Avatar

    Just had to say that this is beautifully written. Very eloquent. I enjoyed reading it and it resonated with me in my own journey to find my place as an author. Thank you.

  13. Brighid Avatar

    I see what you mean by what you wrote, Holly. And you’re right. We can’t write to please everyone. If we did it would be a catastrophe! There would be too many things that don’t make sense and then -no one- would be satisfied. The world is just too sensitive now-a-days. Whatever happened to those thick skins we all used to have?

  14. Clorine Avatar

    I was happy to read what you said about writing to please yourself, as write what you know about is always the catch phrase. I often get criticised for writing some comedy into drama, as I try to write real characters in realistic situations as far as my own experience allows, and life isn’t just drama or just comedy, it’s a mix of the two isn’t it?
    So when it comes to applications, who do you have to tick the box of one or the other? Do people in the admin world only have narrow vision? Or maybe I’m the kooky one!

  15. Monica Avatar

    I like what someone posted on my blog, and I think it applies to you too . . . writers who inspire passion are inevitably going to have detractors. It’s only the mediocre that people don’t hate–but they don’t love it either.

  16. joela Avatar

    Huh. Interesting. And thank you, Holly, for writing such a book. There’s only so much one can read about MCs transporting into magical worlds who become “superheroes” in both power and personality.

    It’s her loss.

  17. Gabriele Avatar

    No author can satisfy every reader in this world, but I think it stupid of the reader to blame the author for having written a book the reader doesn’t like.

    For example, I don’t care about a group of kids with magic abilities as main characters. Do I blame Rowling for writing about them? Surely not: I can see why Harry Potter appeals to so many readers, children and adults. Do I say I’ll never read any book by Rowling EVAH? Chance is I’d miss something interesting by such a stupid attitude – I’d definitely give a book outside the HP world a try.

    The only way an author can lose me for good is by knocking out several sloppily written books in a row and leave me with an impression (s)he doesn’t care about his/her books any longer.

  18. LaurieB Avatar

    Holly, this was just what I needed to read this morning, since I, too, recently received a bad review from a reader who is simply looking for a different kind of book than what I write. Thanks for the reminder that, first and foremost, we must write to please ourselves, that who and what we are shapes the final product of the hours we spend typing in solitude. I’m printing out what you said to hang on the wall over my computer.

  19. Lemm Avatar

    Excellent point about the writer, the readers, the story, and the pub process all wanting to go different directions. Thanks for this post.

  20. Holly Avatar

    My point was that a writer cannot write toward readers, because readers have contradictory desires; pleasing one always means infuriating a dozen others.

    This reader isn’t the most impossible I’ve come across, either, though she was a pretty vivid current example. The absolute worst was a guy who came up to me at a signing once and told me he was never buying another book by me because the gutters in my then-current book (the gutter is the white space in the crease between two pages) were too narrow. He was genuinely angry, and he was dead serious.

    As the writer, all you can do is shake your head in disbelief and move on.

  21. Jenne Avatar

    The very elements that so offended her are the ones that drew me to read the series. I’m always scared that something I write will offend someone; for some reason, it’s harder to remember that those same elements might be exactly what draws someone else.

  22. alisons Avatar

    If anyone has personal issues so strong that they won’t read _anything_ about children, romance, cats, or whatever other topic you care to think of, then that’s their problem. I can understand someone who doesn’t ever want to read horror books, for example, because they don’t find it enjoyable to read about that sort of thing. Horror subject matter is not part of normal everyday life – unlike children and romance. Anyone who’ll be upset by reading a book with a small child in it, for that reason alone, has a sadly warped psyche, and that’s not a problem that anyone else can help them with. As people, we can feel sorry for her. As an author, I don’t think Holly should let criticism of that kind bother her for a moment. I read “Memory of Fire” a couple of weeks ago, and I thought that both heroine and child were beautifully drawn by someone who knows what that stage of motherhood is like. It was a true description that resonated with my memories of that stage in my life. If someone who hasn’t had a young child wants to know what it’s like, that book’ll tell them in an entertaining way, with a good story along the way – which is surely what fiction’s all about.

  23. PolarBear Avatar

    And THAT’s what makes what you write so very special. And because you write fantasy the way you do, I will read it. I read the first one because you are my friend. I’ve read the subsequent ones because I value the writing and have been drawn into it.

  24. Kayla LH Avatar

    Writer’s can’t always please everybody. But considering how many people have, will, and do read your books, that one woman’s cry of outrage means little to nothing.

  25. Gabriele Avatar

    Oops, just realised it’s not an Amazon review (do my prejudices show there, lol?). I found the blog, and since she calls herself an infertile Science Fiction writer I think she transfers her own issues onto books and doesn’t want to read about romance, pregnancy, adoption and children because of her issues. Though I wonder about the romance bit, since she’s married. 😉

  26. Gabriele Avatar

    *shakes head*

    I’ve read some odd reviews at Amazon, but that one tops everything I’ve come across so far. Frankly, I have only once bought a book because of an Amazon review (not a five star OMG this is teh best book EVER one, but a critical, eloquent three star review). For the most I buy books because of recommendations by people whose reading tastes I know; and some authors are auto-buys. Book crits on blogs have become an additional tool to find new books.

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