Don’t Know? Ask.

In Uncategorized on August 27, 2012 at 9:00 am

About a month ago I came across an article in one of the websites I read, and it listed a bunch of “tools for writers” and, more specifically, for self-publishing writers. These lists are sometimes really helpful, and sometimes not so much. This time, most of the sites were either ones I already knew about or ones that weren’t relevant to me — I don’t hire professional editors because I am poor, and some writing websites are fairly obviously aimed at people who are just starting out. It sounds like hubris but I don’t generally need tips on getting motivated to write or finishing what I’ve started or certain elemental tricks of the trade. They clash with my technique or talk about aspects I’ve already incorporated. Artists have very specific individual styles, and sometimes theirs just don’t mesh with mine.

I did come across one website that was by writers, for writers, which looked interesting and professional enough that I thought I’d give it a shot. Sometimes these things pan out.

This one is making me bonkers.

Many of the writers seem obsessed with what readers want, but they’re not very good at figuring it out. They have two essential pathways: shrug and admit that nobody knows what readers want, or do that and then try to write “universally”.

Writing universally is very difficult and very dangerous because trying to please all the people, all the time, generally makes you bland and boring. Nobody takes risks if they’re trying to make sure everyone loves them. Which is not to say that one should try to offend people intentionally, or shouldn’t care about giving offence, because causing hurt is the opposite of the goal of most art. Art is meant to elevate, not demean, or if it does take a shot it should be at the proper targets: hypocrites, the powerful, the cruel. Molly Ivins said “Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel — it’s vulgar.”

When I was in college I read an article about a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” that had been translated into Japanese and performed in Japan. When the lights went down on the final act, the audience was in tears. It was described as the ultimate example of universal writing, that this quintessentially, forcefully American play could elicit such a reaction from people who came to it from a totally different culture. But it also made sense, because it is a play about the attempts of ordinary people to attain immortality, to leave their mark and be remembered, and how often our attempts are thwarted by the society we live in. It’s a lofty goal, to write about something so huge with such sincerity, but making it interesting and engaging requires a great deal of talent and skill that not everyone possesses. Certainly if I did, my books would sell better.

What makes me crazy about this website is that the writers seem to come at the question of what readers want with a degree of hopelessness, with the certainty that nobody knows what readers want. There are two problems with this hopelessness:

1. Writers are readers. We are “the public” same as anyone. We’re not isolated gurus on mountains. If we’re doing our job right, we’re eclectic readers, critical thinkers, and students of the market. There is no reason a writer should need to consult some mythical, homogenous “public” in order to know what to write about.

2. Everyone else is a reader too. Everyone around us reads something. It will rarely be the same thing. There is no single “public” to write for, because the public is made up of individuals exactly like us, who have different tastes, different cultural backgrounds, and different personal histories. That said, if we pay attention to the people around us and actually ask them what they think, we stand a very good chance of learning how to write for them.

I keep wanting to grab these people and yell extribulum at them, which would be funny seeing as how they’d have no idea what this means and I’d look like a crazy person. But it’s true: they’re so wrapped up in what people want, and meanwhile here I am, giving away my first drafts so that I can find out, deliberately asking people what they want, always trying to learn what stories people like to hear and how they like to hear them so that I can combine this desire with my own and make a good story that people want to read.

A lot of people, when faced with large and frightening problems, seem to forget they can ask questions. I don’t know why we’re so afraid to ask questions, though I suspect it has something to do with the assumption that a smart person will already know the answer. But the first thing I do when I don’t know where to start is to make a list of questions I have to answer. Usually asking the question shows me where I have to go to answer it.

The end result is, of course, that I removed the website from my reader feed. I’m busy reading books and industry news; I no longer have the time for people who keep discussing a question without actually asking it.


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