The Needs of the Many

“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?

Thoughts?  Opinions?

View from the Blimp

It gives me great pleasure to announce that A Visit of State, the first story in The Darklighters collection, is finally complete (the first draft, at least) and ready to read by clicking on the appropriate tab above.  The Darklighters is planned as a series of five independent novellas (20,000 words ±) connected together by an overarching story arc.

A Visit of State will be the only one that can be read here for free, but if you like the story and would like the opportunity to read the rest of the book as it is being written, then contact me and tell me that you would like to join my beta-reading group.  As a beta-reader, you will receive each scene as it is completed, and possibly other materials as seem appropriate, and what I will ask in return is that you notify me of any errors that you spot, from typos to plot holes.  These are things that I most decidedly don’t want to appear in my finished product, and the more eyes on the project, the better.  I envision six to ten, but I can accommodate a few more than that.  Names and web addresses of those who have them will appear in the acknowledgement section of the finished book.

Looking forward to working with some of you!

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.

11 thoughts on “The Needs of the Many

    1. My thanks to you for sharing, first of all. We all want to get our message out to the widest possible audience, and this one has apparently struck a chord. As to failure, you’ve only failed when you give up. Best of joss with Aunt Enid!

      Like

  1. Plotting helps decide when you introduce a character. I have three main characters, with alternating (but as needed, not in strict rotation) points of view. They each get a pov scene as the first three scenes in the first book – as the way of telling the reader: these are the people who will tell you the story. By the end of that third scene, you have an inkling of what will happen, and know whose story it is and how it will be told.

    It is the first thing the reader gets, except for a very short prologue (145 words) that some will even skip. Which is my little joke, because it is absolutely crucial to the story (though you’ll get everything in it later, by reading the whole first two books of the trilogy), and I try immediately to drag you so deeply into the story that the prologue is forgotten.

    Yes, I’d call that presentation: the first four pieces of writing (aside from a couple of epigraphs – also critical, though not in the same way; and the titles for trilogy, book, and chapter – ditto) you run into as a reader establish the whole story. If you’re used to reading simple little Romances without any of this, it will seem too much. But if you appreciate, say, On The Beach or The Name of the Rose or Rebecca, I’m hoping you will be licking your chops.

    All of this took years – and much learning of the craft – to get to where it felt right. That’s my job – to learn to write well enough for the story I want to tell.

    I just hope I get to finish.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, yes! I always say I’ve been writing to entertain others for sixty years – since my fifth-grade teacher exposed me to that particular joy in 1958. Of those sixty years. forty were spent learning The Craft (and I’m still learning!), as I first felt confident enough to approach the world of professional publishing in 1998.

      As to your opening, you have a slightly different approach than I do. As a rule, I have one main character whose story the work unquestionably is, and I’ll usually pound their viewpoint for the first three to five scenes, leaving no doubt who owns the story, and what they have to accomplish to succeed. Nothing wrong with your method though, as long as it’s perfectly clear who the reader is supposed to get behind.

      Thanks for stopping by again, and best of joss on your trilogy!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Whatever you choose, it should be deliberate, with the intention of clueing the reader into the world, character, story…

        Pantsers don’t necessarily not do it – but it doesn’t necessarily start out as a deliberate choice because they don’t yet know the story. It can waste a lot of time. And I can’t do it.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. For me, a novel or a story often get their start long before I sit down at the keyboard. I’ve been a daydreamer ever since I was a kid in school and I spend a lot of time imagining my world and the people in it and the problems they’re having. My real challenge is making sure all the important stuff I imagine gets down on the page and I leave out the trivial stuff that no one cares about. I don’t know if I always succeed, but that’s the goal! Thanks for the thoughtful and interesting post, Jack.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the visit, and for making your thoughts known. This dynamic exchange of ideas is how we all add to our repertoires, polish our techniques, and become better writers… At least, that’s what I hope when I’m composing this stuff. I measure my success in writer improvements!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Valuable information for anyone who makes a stop here, Richard. Thanks for taking the time, and bringing something really useful to the discussion!

      Liked by 1 person

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