Monday, January 12, 2009

Hail, Caesar

The Roman emperors realized that the way to win favor with the public was to give them what they wanted.

On the surface, this seems counter-intuitive, or even just plain wrong. It would seem that kings and dictators who rule with an iron fist would be able to stay in control and get more done through fear.

And yet, every Caesar built grand public buildings and held fabulous spectacles, all to keep their subjects docile by making them happy.

Now here comes the writing analogy.

How often, in your writing, do you write whatever the hell you want to write without any care at all for your audience?

When we start out, we're all 100% self-indulgent. We have huge egos that demand we put our brilliant words on paper. Of course other people will love them as much as we do. Of course they'll sell by the millions.

And then, as we head down the road to publication, we start to learn things. We learn about craft and form, and that narratives have structure and genres. We learn about editing and polishing, and how cutting and adding and getting input from others makes our work better. And eventually, if we make it far enough, we learn about marketing and selling.

We aren't really artists. We're emperors. Because, like those emperors, we start out doing whatever we desire. But we come to realize that if we want to keep being emperors, the key is to sell as much of our work as possible. And that means giving the people what they want.

I've said, ad nauseum, that before you create a key, study the lock. Know who the audience is, and who the buyer is, before you even write the first word of a story.

But if you want to make people happy, and keep them buying your work (or visiting your blog, or downloading your freebies, or entering your contests, or attending your appearances) you have to know more than just the genre and prospective publisher. It's very easy to say, "I'm writing a mystery because a lot of people buy mysteries and a lot of houses publish mysteries so I've figured out the lock before I make the key" and still be way off the mark in terms of success.

So how do you figure out what people want?

Readers of this blog know that people seek two things from writers: information and entertainment. The specific kind of information and entertainment, however, is mostly subjective, and often hard to guess.

So here are some hints.

1. Look Inward. We all start out trying to please ourselves, and this might actually end up being helpful. If you think something is funny, chances are other people do as well. So while you're attempting to please your audience, remember what works on you. What books do you like to read? Why do you enjoy them? What are the last five books you've bought and why?

The more you understand yourself, the better you'll understand others.

2. Look Outward. Read as much as you can. Join a writers group and critique others. Figure out what works, what doesn't, and come up with reasons why.

You shouldn't write in a genre you aren't well-read in. You shouldn't submit a story to a magazine unless you've read several issues cover to cover. Every time you write, you aren't reinventing the wheel. You're simply putting a new spin on the wheel. Figure out how the wheel works, then you can spin it accordingly.

3. Get Feedback. There are a few jokes I tell that NEVER get a laugh, even though I think they're funny.

A story, or a speech, or a blog, isn't a monologue. It is an exchange, and involves at least one other person. Pay attention to how that person responds. With a blog or a speech, you can get feedback quickly. With a story, you have to solicit it.

Seek out peers, and trade manuscripts with them to critique. Pay attention to agents and editors--they're on your side and want to make the story better. Find as many beta readers as you can, and be ready to ask them questions about what is and isn't working.

4. Respect Your Audience. Once you learn who your audience is, and what they want, it is your job to never let them down. Ways to let them down include:
  • Talking down to them
  • Talking over their heads
  • An unsatisfying ending
  • Making your characters do uncharacteristic things
  • Too many coincidences
  • Unfunny humor
  • Poor or confusing structure
  • Unrealistic romance
  • Gratuitous anything
  • Self-indulgence
All writers really need to watch the last one. If you think you may be showing off, or know in your heart that the line/scene you just wrote will never fly, chances are high it will never fly.

Once you fall in love with your own voice, you get bestselleritis. If you're a bestseller, this disease won't do you much harm. You can keep writing long-winded, self-important, unrealistic crap that's a shell of your early work, and because people are creatures of habit they'll keep buying it--although you can expect them to voice their disapproval on Amazon.com.

But if you're a new writer, and you expect people to bend over and accept your writing simply because you think it's good enough--that's a career killer.

In fact, it's wise to never believe your own hype, at any stage of your career.

Ultimately, we're entertainers. We're the people who play sax on street corners for pocket change. The more people we entertain, the more money we get. So remember to take requests...