Friday, February 17, 2006

It's All About the Reader

Publishing is a trade, and writing is a commercial product. It's a business. A service industry. People buy fiction to get an enjoyable experience in fantasy. Not to be guided, edified, informed, educated, changed, shamed, preached at, or persuaded of anything.

Many writers fail because they view writing as a way to get attention. They have a burning desire to express themselves and think the world cares to listen. They have something to say and think the world cares to hear it. They view a book as some sort of public address system. Unfortunately, everybody wants to get attention, but nobody wants to give it. Everybody wants to be heard, but nobody wants to listen. If you want to get something off your chest to the world, go find it in microcosm — some stranger — and try to tell him. You reply, "What do you think I am? nuts?" Nobody would dream of walking up to some stranger on the street and spamming him that way. Except wanna-be writers, who dream of doing it on a national scale.

Now, maybe if you pay that stranger for his attention he would give it. But you can't expect him to pay you for his attention. So, here's the best advice you'll ever get: Don't think you need to impress people by how you write. Writing for attention sabotages the hard work of many who would otherwise be fine, successful, and happy writers. Such a writer becomes the proverbial "talker," self-absorbed and oblivious to the person he's talking to. That's because, since it's all about him getting attention, it's all about HIM. Good writers know it's all about the reader.

That's why good writing never calls attention to itself, whereas poor writing does. Good writing evokes emotion, whereas poor writing expresses it.

Good writers know that reading fiction is primarily an emotional experience and that the writer's job is to manipulate the reader's emotions, not to vent his own. To manipulate the reader's emotions you must know your reader. Pay constant attention to her, and know the effect your words are having on her.

The trick is to attract no attention. For, the message is what counts, not the medium. Even in nonfiction, writing should be as transparent as possible. In fiction, the writing should disappear, absorbing the reader into the story as though she is experiencing it in the here and now. That's what impresses acquisitions editors.

Beautiful and elegant prose is never loud. In his works, Shakespeare sometimes has characters comment on other written works of his day. When he praises writing, he does so for two qualities: modesty and imagination. Though fame can go to a writer's head as easily as anybody else's, if you disregard all the really famous writers and consider all other successful writers, you'll be struck by how many are modest people.

So, just be yourself and tell a good story. Your job isn't to impress people, improve people, or express yourself: it's to deliver a reading experience enjoyable enough to be worth the reader's precious time.

Owning that fact is no more a "sellout" than selling any merchandise is. Indeed, selling oneself, instead of one's work, is hardly taking the high moral ground. And the need to entertain your reader doesn't mean that great writing has gone the way of the dinosaur, either. If a great heart and great thoughts are in you, they will out! But remember that you are just a storyteller.

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Blogger Gina Holmes said...

Good writing never calls attention to itself.

I'd agree with that mostly. But once in awhile I'm reading a novel that has a line that I salivate over it's so well written. Never is the line purple or pretentious but worded just right. Glad I found your blog.

5:43 PM  

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