Writing is one of the few professions left where you take all the responsibility for what you do. It’s really dangerous and ultimately destroys you as a writer if you start thinking about responses to your work or what your audience needs.”
~ ERICA JONG
Liberating words from a famous author, you may think, and yet your audience has needs if you are a fiction author, and if you won’t provide them, they will find an author who will. Bold words from a nobody, perhaps, but let’s look at what goes on during the creation and consumption of fiction.
The initiating event in any work of fiction is its creation. You, the author, sit at a keyboard and string words of the English language together to create a story. “Story” is a catch-all term that we can take to mean the whole package. You create a premise, a plot, characters, actions, you give them setting, context, dialogue, and if you’re very good, and very lucky, all of these disparate parts come together in a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts, and we call it a story. But even now, it isn’t complete. To reach completion, it needs readers, readers who like it, who tell their friends that they should read it because it’s a good use of their time, and they’ll gain something intangible from it. And readers have needs.
Needs you have to meet. When you create this world, no one but you knows the first thing about it, and it is your challenge to let potential readers into it. Readers need to know how it works, they need to know who inhabits it, they need to know what these people want, and what they’re willing to do to get it. Needs. If your story is going to be remembered as being really exceptional, they also need you to hold some vital information back, to keep it from them, to let them speculate. On the other hand, some stories do best when the readers are given more information than the characters have, thus building tension and dread for the disaster that those characters can’t see coming. “Don’t open that door!” their minds scream at the character. “Don’t look in that crate!” But of course, they do, and the moment that they do, and the reactions that they have, are completely under your control; did you meet the reader’s need?
Back during my stay with writing.com, the Mystery Newsletter highlighted the incomplete Stingaree as an Editor’s Pick. I never would have known it, had it not been reviewed by a reader who told me she found it there. Then a week later a different editor of that same newsletter featured Brass & Coal as an Editor’s Pick. As more experienced mystery readers became aware of these steampunk romps, they gave me some indication that my Mystery chops are legit, but that’s beside the point. See, I never thought of myself as a mystery writer, but apparently some experienced mystery readers and/or writers do. Has this colored the way I approach my stories? You bet your sweet acidophilis it has! Now I’m thinking in terms of foreshadowing, red herrings, MacGuffins, and all the other tools of the mystery writer that I’ve never had to pay any attention to before. But now, not only is it necessary, but I firmly believe it will improve my overall Craft.
It is my contention that not only do you have to accommodate the needs of your readers, if you hope to have any, but that the delicate balancing act of too much or too little meeting of those needs begins to vie with richly-drawn characters as the most important aspect of fiction. Some might want to call this “pacing,” and I can see where it’s related, but this is really more like “presentation.” Here is this world I’ve created. I want you to come in and enjoy it, so I’ve decided to show you this, and withhold that, and with that information, you have to parse out what’s going on, who’s interested, and why, and alternately shiver in fear, and quiver with anticipation as you make your way through it.
That is your challenge as a writer, and compared to that, all the others fade to insignificance. It’s a dangerous tightrope to walk, and a balance that must be achieved from the first page and held to the last . . . And just when you thought you had it all figured out, here’s this whole new skill to learn . . . and I should digress here to point out that I’m leaning hard on seventy, and have been writing for sixty years! Getting this right is going to require the ability to read your own story like you’ve never seen it before, to ask, “would I be surprised, gratified, terrified, or whatever else might be required at this point, if I was seeing this for the first time?” You’ll have to arrive at an accurate answer, and incorporate your solution on the page in a way that will satisfy every reader’s needs. Sort of brings a whole new meaning to the concept of proofreading, doesn’t it?
So this is my theory, and it’s a fairly new one for this old writer. I call it the Presentation of a story, and it can best be described as “How much do you tell, and when do you tell it?” What do you think, is it legit? Is it something that needs to be addressed by conscientious authors, or am I just starstruck after having been unexpectedly defined as a mystery writer?
In Other News…
When an unsuspecting reader receives The Call and undertakes the journey that is writing, he or she is often an almost literal babe in the woods. There are myriad lessons to learn, from plot format to character creation, building worlds to building networks, and for the most part, all these readers know is that they like a certain kind of book, and their approach is to sit down and write one similar to it. But much like magic in the world of Harry Potter, the finished book you have just read is the tip of the literary iceberg, and gives no hint of the vast world that supports it.
It can be an agonizing journey that takes decades to master. But a relatively new friend of mine, Liverpudlian author Richie Billing, has gathered 150 pages of advice, tips, tricks, and hacks for aspiring authors, and is offering it for free on his website, richiebilling.com. If you are about to embark on our Journey, or have recently begun, and already found yourself in a minefield of confusion, click the link and download the guide; an afternoon’s reading will contribute mightily to your navigation skills.