Friday, September 30, 2011

How Much Do Writers Owe Their Audience?

Been thinking of some things lately. I don't know if I've come to any conclusions, but I thought I'd share my thoughts and get your thoughts, as well.

How much do writers owe their audience?

Now, of course, writers wouldn't get paid unless their audience bought their books. So, for that, no doubt, we are eternally grateful that people give of their time and their money to indulge our writing obsessions.

But my question goes deeper than that. The second book in my The Coming Evil Trilogy--Enemies of the Cross--will be released in February. That's just around the corner, and I'm starting to feel the pressure. Will people like the book? Will they feel satisfied and that the year-long wait was worth it?

Will I live up to the expectations of my fanbase?

Expectations... I never had those with Book One. It was a wild card. A weird little addition to the world. No one saw it coming and I certainly had no clue what the reaction of readers might be. But now that it's out--and people have read it--they have no doubt come to their own conclusions about "what happens next". I know I would if I were merely a Reader. Most of my favorite TV shows are eventually ruined for me because, the longer I stay with them, the more ideas I come up with for how I would continue the show. And, when the show veers from my ideal direction, I feel offended. I feel that the show has let me down because it's not stuck to my own fantasy direction.

The question is: Should it?

At what point do fans have "a right" to their story? Or do they ever? Is a book art? Or is it a product to be consumed?

If it's merely a product to be consumed, then I would say the fans have every right. If you buy Peter Pan Peanut Butter all your life, and suddenly the recipe changes, you have a right to complain. That's a product and you buy it because of certain attributes. If that changes, then it's not the same product. I suspect that's why some fans have created an uproar over the Blu-Ray release of the Star Wars saga with all of its (largely unnecessary) changes. They saw the movie a certain way in the theater, and now that product is being changed. The recipe's changed. It's not the same product. Or is it?

If a book is art, do the fans have any say? Or is it the author's right to create however he or she desires? Is George Lucas right to make his changes to Star Wars? It's his movie, after all, right? (I'm being rhetorical. I'm one of those upset with most of his changes :p)

What I find interesting is that, personally speaking, when I become a fan of something, it's because I trust the author. I feel like they know what they're doing and, especially for that first book/movie/tv season, I'm just along for the ride. But, as the ride progresses, then I want to start having my say. I turn into a backseat driver and I think the characters should do this, or the twist should be this.

I remember reading someone's comment on a facebook post that, if a reader doesn't like your book, then you--as the author--let them down. I find that to be a very harsh and erroneous, black-and-white statement. But maybe I'm wrong. How do you measure the success of a book? By how many people you pleased with it, or by how you personally feel about it?

I will not please everyone with Book Two, I fear. I'd like to think my audience will continue to place their trust in me as I lead them through this story. On the other hand, maybe it's an honor that fans feel so comfortable with your story that they feel a small ownership in it. Maybe that's what I want. Maybe that's a good thing. I'm passionate about the story and I want others to be too. At what point do you cater to those "partner owners" and at what point do you carry on in the path, regardless of your fanbase's wishes (both extremes)?

I've seen shows and stories that (at least I thought) have catered only to their loudest fans and they lose their identity. They lose the thing that made them unique because they allow themselves to be pulled this way and that.

I don't know if these questions have any easy answers. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about all of it--but I'd love your input. Where do you draw the line between "fan service" and "creative freedom"? Are novels art or a product? Or does the truth lie somewhere in the middle?


Warren said...

I think an author needs to write the story the way he/she wants it to go, not just writing what the fans want to read. For one thing, simply trying to please your audience will most likely end in a lower-quality book, because the author is not as passionate about the story and that is seen in the writing. This is not to say that the readers have no say. The author can always hear a suggestion and accept it. Or reject it. It should be the author's choice in the end.
The only times I have really been disappointed in a book is when either the story was utterly predictable, or when the majority of a story is an obvious rip-off of another story (think Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, two very common stories to rip off).

Greg Mitchell said...

Good thoughts, Warren. Thanks for posting!

Bruce Hennigan said...

Greg, you have touched one of my pet peeves as a reader. I've followed many serial books and it seems that about book 4 or 5, the author runs out of creative steam and reboots the character. All the growth and development and personal relationships the main character has formed get tossed out the window. For me, it is a cheat; a cop out.
I don't want that to happen with my books, so I have carefully outlined the main "story arc" for each book as part of the series.
I bring this up because in my heavy edit of my first book coming out this week, I made substantial changes to the relationships I have developed between some of my main characters and now, having already turned in the second book, I'm going back and making changes to match those in the first book!
My fear is what will happen down the line. Tiny changes now widen and enlarge in the future. So, I have to be true to my story arc. What then if the readers hate the story arc? Will I find myself going back and "rebooting" the story to please my readers?
It's a tough question. And, it boils down to whom I am responsible? My own inner vision for the story or the reader/publisher/income?
It's a tough question to consider and I don't know that there is an easy answer. Maybe I shouldn't be so hard on those authors who let me down. Maybe they were changing their stories for the sake of sales or reader pressure or publisher pressure. And, if I find myself in a similar situation, what will I do?
Not sure. I'm just going to pray an awful lot that I keep the Story that God has placed on my heart in the forefront. I have a placard on my desk: "It's the Story, Stupid!" It has saved my butt many times!

Greg Mitchell said...

That's a great motto, Bruce, ha ha.

Just so you know, I'm super pumped to be picking up your book! I can't wait to start on it!