The Forgotten Reader
To discuss this, I need to break two of my unspoken Spec-Faith column rules.
- Speculative Faith is primarily for readers, secondarily for writers.
- Ergo: self, don’t write only about writing tips for writers.
Today I’ll need to limit my audience, to tighten the niche even narrower than it already is. I will need to speak primarily to you writers who write about writing.
The rest of you, however, are more than welcome in this little clubhouse. Mind your head.
Seven years ago I attended my first writers’ conference. That was a heady experience:
Wow here are other writers just like me who like writing about actual science fiction and things like that and best of all from a Christian perspective so where do I sign up and will you listen to my very naïve science-fiction novel proposal please with a minimum of laughing?
It bore fruit. That’s how I made real- and aspiring-author friends. I joined Speculative Faith. That site grew. Other sites, networks, independent publishers, and even some traditional Christian publishers’ slow acceptance of some fantasy, also grew. That’s fantastic. And it’s likely true that any growth here may be better than none.
But this can reach a plateau. Many websites and writers neglect the main reason they should grow. They turn into what I’ll call Writers Who Write about Writing for Writers Who also Write about Writing. Writers end up practicing writicism.
No, I’m not saying this is sin. I’m saying it’s limiting. It’s shooting ourselves in the foot.
We’re doing the same thing we’d do if we decided: Hey, let’s try not to reach out to regular readers.
Just now I’ll take a stroll through my social-network feed and recount what I read only from the writers I follow. (Again, this is not condemning, only observing.) Apart from justifiable excitement over the third Man of Steel film trailer, I found:
- A comment on a tips-for-writing article.
- A twice-shared blog post about personal encouragement for writers.
- A blog post about writing particular sorts of characters.
- A post more broadly applying to readers — a novel chapter preview — yet the word “writing” is still in its title.
- An author’s FB-echoed Tweet that’s specifically about another writing tip.
- A contest announcement by writers, about writers, for writers.
- A blog post about family members and writing hardships.
- This comical post: Ten People You Don’t Want to Meet at a Writer’s Group. (The eleventh person may be the man who wants to quit writing about writing so much.)
Writers, put your imaginations to work and consider: 1
- If you were a reader only, would you feel like these posts are meant for you?
- Might they lay down needless “stumbling blocks” to promoting fantastic stories?
- Would you feel drawn into stories and wonder, or writing about stories for wonder?
Perhaps we must re-introduce the kinds of readers that writers should be reaching.
Adults with children and teens
Who are they? The furthest you can get from any writism. If they ever wanted to be writers, now they don’t have time. They work other jobs, raise their families, go to church, care for relatives, host birthday parties, try to keep their teens on the right path.
What do they want? Decent stories for their kids.
What do they need? The same. They also should know that it’s good for them to enjoy epic stories for God’s glory — beyond the assumed justifications of entertainment, edification and evangelism. In fact, this is vital God-worship that their children must see them doing.
What do they not need? First to be acknowledged. To be spoken to. To see their “names.”
‘Lewis/Tolkien or bust’ readers
Who are they? We’ve all encountered these folks. They go to your church or library and enjoy the works, and films based on the works, of Inkling scholars. As far they know, these are the only great books out there. If asked, they will say, “Christian fiction is lame.”
What do they want? The sense of a great story, the rightful “escapism” it brings.
What do they need? More stories, and the fact that we can enjoy beyond only top classics.
What do they not need? The persistent assumption that “Christian fiction is lame” or rare. Yes, some is lame — and much of secular fiction is lame. Great stories by Christian authors are out there. We can’t simply act like we can talk about writing and better craft and thus magically generate better, more-popular novels. We must promote the stories themselves.
Who are they? The people we know at our churches, including members of the above groups.
What do they want? To enjoy God, to glorify Him in all they do, and to enjoy others’ gifts.
What do they need? They need to know that you are not only a “writicist,” but that you love stories, and that you love them for reasons that are Biblical and worshipful and necessary.
What do they not need? A notion that you only have a silly hobby that is at best optional and at worst a distraction from more-spiritual pursuits. They also don’t need to feel any “hipster” or artistically/spiritually superior vibe. If you have this vibe, they will sense it.
What can we do?
At some point our responses must go beyond free-floating blogs and abstract discussion into boots-and-sweat-on-the-ground solutions. But we might start with this:
- Write a blog about other readers whom writers and authors may have forgotten.
- Excerpt that blog below.
- Then flagrantly advertise your link so this conversation can build speed.
- Next week I hope to explore writers, blogs and social networking that do a better job of reaching out to readers. ↩
One of my favorite reader / writer blogs is Literary Rambles. They do reviews, book giveaways, and lots more. I’ve built up my to-read list primarily because of them.
I think as fiction writers, it can be hard to find specific things to blog about other than writing or even speculative fiction.Perhaps I am wrong, but there is only so much you can say on those topics before you run out of material.
So when I first thought about blogging, I wasn’t sure what I should write about. There were already plenty of blogs out there that covered the topics above. And I didn’t feel like I was really an expert on anything. Until I realized that as a pastor’s wife, people were interested in my life and on my thoughts on Christianity. My real thoughts, written from a woman who is trying to live a life of faith.
So that’s what I write about: my life. I write from a personal point of view. I open myself up and share my private thoughts, fears, and doubts. I’ve shared what it’s like to be a pastor’s wife. I’ve shared the grief and hurt I’ve been through at the hands of the church, but how God has healed me.
Only I can write about Morgan and what God has done with Morgan. And I have come to find that others feel and have experienced the same things I have. By sharing myself, I am able to encourage others.
Maybe that is something other writers can blog about. After all, each of us is unique, with unique experiences, talents, hobbies, fears, etc…
Interesting you should bring this up. A good hunk, in times past, of my own blog posts revolved around writing issues. To date, my top three blog post are “how tos” on putting together ebooks and setting up Open Office to duplicate many writer’s software.
But I decided this year I was going to take a different tact. I’m limiting myself to no more than one writing related article, targeted to other writers, per month. The bulk of my articles are to entertain the reader. I do one free short-short story a month, one funny off-beat topic, and one more theological topic. So far, so good. But the idea is if readers see you can write entertaining blog posts, they’ll assume your stories are fun to read as well. Each blog post is an advertisement of how you write.
I’ve noticed a slight jump in readership since the beginning of the year, and one of my short-short stories is up in the top ten of most viewed post over the previous month. So it seems to be building traffic.
But that all came about because I’d decided in times past my blog was too targeted to other writers, and I wanted it to be a place readers could come and enjoy.
I know I stand among the ranks of those being taken to task by this post. I know I tend to talk about writing instead of reading. I know that’s one of your pet peeves, Stephen, and I recognize you’re trying to make your thoughts on the matter crystal clear to folks like me.
I guess I’m just still confused.
When I discuss films with my friends (and I’m using films as my example because it’s unlikely anyone here has been involved in the making of a commercial film), I’m critiquing the way in which films are made. When I say about Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit that its opening sequence blew me away, that I loved the script’s interpretation of the White Council and I’m excited about the upcoming assault on Dol Guldor, but that Radagast’s random appearance outside Rivendell transforms the Misty Mountains from a neigh-impassable wall looming on the edge of the map into a convenient plot-device that seemingly pops outta the ground “like daisies!” (to quote a certain travel-sized dragon), and that Thorin & Co.’s cartoon-physics tumble through goblin-town stripped the story of all verisimilitude, what I’m really doing is talking about writing. Indeed, I find it impossible to enjoy any work of art without critiquing the way in which it was made. It’s simply not enough for me to gush that “I loved it!” or rant that “I hated it!” I must figure out why I reacted the way that I did, for therein my joy draws nearer to completion.
So what’s the difference between talking about a book and talking about writing? Is it the imperative voice I use when speaking hypothetically? I guess that’s probably the source of the “artistically superior vibe” you mention, but that vibe could be dampened with nothing more than a liberal sprinkling of “I think” and “in my opinion.” The thing I still don’t understand is the distinction you’re attempting to draw between discussions of reading and discussions of writing. I’ve never had a conversation about writing that didn’t help me become a better reader, and vice versa.
So I guess my question isn’t so much “Why must we segregate these disciplines?” — it’s more like “How is there a significant difference between them?”
EXACTLY! When I gush about something, I gush writerly!
Our earlier conversation certainly helped sharpen my thoughts on this, Austin!
I think what you’ve described — a critique of the way a story is put together as a receiver of the story — is different from what I’ve described. You speak of an informed review of a story. Others, such as the majority of posts I summarized above, speak of machinery for making a story. Of course I don’t object to that at all! How else would stories get made? This isn’t some “unspiritual” or capitalistic enterprise to condemn legalistically. Rather, I’m asking, among my author and aspiring-author friends and others in these circles, what instinct rises to the top — to reach out to other writers, or to other readers? And then: which readers do you reach, or think you should?
I suppose my answers to your questions would be:
1. When I intentionally set out to discuss the written word, I’m usually impelled by instinct to discuss it with fellow writers, since we’re able to empathize with each other’s struggles and hone each other’s skills. I’m instinctually driven to interact with fellow readers, on the other hand, only when one of us has discovered a new book worthy of either praise or disparagement.
Relatedly, I can’t imagine what it’d look like for me to attempt to discuss reading as an activity. What a pointless conversation that’d be! In order to be interesting in the slightest, reading must have an object: and that object is always writing. So really, I don’t think I’ve ever discussed “reading” with anyone. I’m only interested in talking about writing — either my own or someone else’s.
2. When I discuss writing as a reader, I doubt anything I say travels any great distance past the ears of those who already share my love for speculative fiction, unless I’m talking to impressionable children. Why would I want to open up about something so close to my inmost heart to anyone who thought it silly or dangerous or irrelevant? It’s not like anyone’s soul or safety or livelihood hangs in the balance. And it’s dang hard to convince people that the world they know is but a copy and shadow of an undiscovered country, a reality unseen, a wild and liberated universe of which we can only dream.
Should I aspire to convince more interlocutors of the value, the joy, the glory found in fiction? I don’t think that’s necessary. Speculative fiction is already a massive behemoth in the publishing world. Endless novels about sorcerers and starship pilots are enjoyed by millions yearly. There’s not a bookstore in America that doesn’t contain a fantasy/sci-fi section. That means people with our sensibilities are in the majority. It’s just Christian speculative fiction that’s consigned itself to an infinitesimally niche market. Neither Tolkien nor Lewis — those idols whom we routinely hold aloft as exemplary — targeted an exclusively Christian readership. Whence comes this strangely pervasive notion that Christians and unbelievers read and write according to different rules? Someday soon, I wanna be able to walk into a ComiCon convention and start gushing to all comers: “Hey, have you read [insert title of novel written by Christian author]? It’s one of the best things I’ve read in years! The characters are fascinating, the plot’s unpredictable, and the action’s inTENSE. What, you want me to loan it to you? Are you kidding? Go buy it yourself — I’m rereading my copy.”
… but there I go again, talking about writing. ;-p
Very clear delineation, Austin. Good job. (Words I don’t pass around lightly…)
Part of the trouble with the distinction between readers and writers is that all writers are, or used to be, readers, but not all readers are writers. Very Venn. But, the deeper a reader delves into a particular genre, the more that reader will pick up on certain expectations or cadences of the genre, until the reader pretty much knows what works or what doesn’t for him/her. Shortly after this, the reader begins to recognize some stories “work” better than others. And then the reader thinks “Surely I could write better than this!”
Thus is another writer born of a reader, and so begins a long, painful journey to discovering the VAST difference between criticizing something and creating something worth criticizing.
Keeping the reader-only mentality is hard, especially when trying to deepen a discussion that requires elements of critical thinking that are typically stored in the “writer’s toolbox” section of the average human’s education. 🙂
However, for shameless self-promotion purposes, I will say I recently guest-posted as part of the Fairy Tale Fortnight hosted by The Book Rat and A Backwards Story. It was aimed at readers, not writers, and challenged readers to look for unsung heroes.
I think this is why I’ve moved to mostly talking about anime on my blog. You run out of things to say otherwise, and it’s not really interesting to mention how you keep switching projects because you’re wrestling with your focus as a writer between Christian and secular.
I’m not sure about reaching those kinds of readers though. It seems more about convincing them you are a certain way that is completely apart from spec fic itself. You need to convince the moms you are safe, sanitized, and child-friendly. You need to meet the Lewisians unrealistic standards, and you need to convince the church people you are one of them and not some dreaded hipster who will start spouting about Roger Zelanzy or other things they never have heard of before. It feels more like we have to convert hostile or wary readers than reach people who like spec fiction and are willing to read Christian spec fic.
I’m not sure what to do about it if this is the case. I think sometimes this is why so many Christian writers are reverends or pastors, because it placates the readers. He’s ordained-he has to be safe.
[…] Speculative Faith, E. Stephen Burnett unknowingly highlighted this in a post on the importance of getting readers. It’s a good post, and too be honest the Christian SF sphere really is writer-focused to a […]
Returning to this post after too many days, it sounds like a few people took exception to the particular groups I highlighted … thus my request for other groups the writer-oriented folks might have neglected. For instance, in my first draft of this post I had included the group “professional geeks,” the types of folks who hang out at websites and trade news about superhero film casting. (I enjoy keeping up with these, but from a distance.) I cut that bit for space. But that’s an example of another group of readers that the Christian fantasy “writicist” blogosphere may be leaving out of the audience.
This is an area I’ve been thinking about lately, as I prepare to start my own blog. I think the question we need to ask is, “What is the point of my website? Who do I want to appeal to?” And I think as authors, our first task should be to connect with the people who will potentially become readers of our books. A website that talks about writing is fine, just expect the audience to be that: other writers. I’m not saying that’s not a goal to strive for, we just have to decide where we want your focus to be. Do we want to write about topics that will bring in other writers, or do we want to write about things that will draw the interest of potential readers? And if the goal of a website is to build up our platform and get our name out for readers to see, doesn’t it make sense to target the readers instead of the writers? Sure, plenty of writers love to read a good book, too, but they don’t make up the majority of our potential audience. Bottom line: we should gear our websites toward the people we want to hook.
After careful consideration, I’ve decided that I want my blog not to focus on writing from a craft perspective, arranged to attract other people interested in the subjects (if anything, I’ll have a separate site for that). I want my website to be geared toward people who would be interested in reading my books. In short, an Author’s Website, not a Writer’s Website. The problem I stumble over is what to write about that appeals to readers. That’s easier to do when you have books published and can post any number of things related to them. But until then, what’s the process? What kinds of things would interest readers, make them stop and poke around, and keep them coming back?
That’s the question I’m having a hard time answering.
Zac, are you familiar with Randy Ingermanson? He’s a multi-layered author with a website and newsletter–advancedfictionwriting.com . One thing he teaches is that writers should be consistent and timely with their work. An example he gives is from a few years ago, when a hyped-up para-Biblical thing was in the news. As a Christian writer and a physicist, he knew how the pseudo-science being presented in this piece of news was wrong. So, he wrote an article. Because it was timely, people researching this piece of news came across his article, and he picked up a lot of press and new readers.
You don’t have to build a platform overnight (such as “homeschool your children” or “read Christian scifi”), but you should discuss things you know that will interest your readers. If you’re researching bladesmithing a lot, write regularly on different methods used in crafting curved Eastern blades vs. straight Western ones. If your book(s) is(are) about space exploration, draw together known research and plausible theories. Some romance authors provide “dishy guy Mondays” or “frilly Fridays” for their regular blog readers. Jeannie Campbell, of ACFW, is a licensed counselor who does “therapy sessions” for fictional characters at charactertherapist.blogspot.com . Platforms are built out of the practical ways authors can put their knowledge to use, but they aren’t the end-all-be-all of writing. If your website will just be an introduction of you, that’s one thing. If you’ll be engaging with your readers, give them something to talk about with you. Movies you love together. Scriptures at work behind politics. The merits and dangers of warp drive vs. improbability drive.
Yes, I’ve been to his site and read some of his stuff, and I know about the article you mentioned. However, the advice he gives about being timely wasn’t something I was aware of before. I’ll definitely tuck that piece of info away for later use.
Thanks for your feedback. Just after reading some of the suggestions you gave, it stirred up new ideas that I could use. I’m not thinking I can build my platform overnight by any means, but I’m looking for ways to get the process moving, and having something insightful or entertaining to say is the starting point.
I love it when good authors are also good bloggers, engaging their fans through website content and building street-level momentum for new releases. Brandon Sanderson, my favorite contemporary author, posts prolifically to his website (www.brandonsanderson.com), annotates each chapter of nearly every book he’s ever written, and moderates a weekly roundtable of professional authors who basically teach a free university course in creative writing to the masses (www.writingexcuses.com), while still finding time to actually teach such a course at BYU. I eat it up. Sanderson’s interaction with his readers has been a huge encouragement to me, and hugely instructive. There’s just one problem with trying to establish an Author’s Website: one must first become an author.
So while I think Lex’s blogging advice is good, I also think it might, in your case, constitute the best possible methodology for putting the cart before the horse. The distinction you draw between Writing Websites and Author’s Websites is an astute one. You must now confront a fundamental question, Zac: do you want to be a good author, or a good blogger? If the former is your ultimate goal, I’d start with the basics. Write a book and get it published. Then not only will you start accruing readers who care what you think about stuff, but you’ll be able to provide them with “supplemental” material on your Author’s Website. But until you become an author, all your blogging will have to be good enough to pass as “primary” material — in other words, your fans will be incapable of loving you for anything other than your blog. And the pressure of providing them with excellent, consistent, and timely blog posts will probably end up interfering with that book you’ve got coming along.
Cool. I’ve heard of Sanderson (although I haven’t read any of his works), but I had no idea he did all that. That’s awesome! I’ll have to check his website out to see how he approaches it and to gather some ideas.
Yes, I see your point. Until there’s a book for people to read, the blog posts I write will be the lone connection fans have to me. (You could argue that fans don’t even come about until they have something to be fans of.) I am writing short stories, which I’m planning on getting out before the books, to give people a taste of the way I write fiction, and that should help the situation.
To answer your question, my foremost goal is to be the best author I can, blogging on the side as a way to interact with people and attract new readers. So in that case, your point is well made. However, I do feel that it’s a bit of a catch-22. As an unknown writer, I want to start getting my name out through blogging and such so that when I do publish my books, it won’t be into a vacuum. People have to know I exist before they can buy the book, and social networking seems the best way to do fulfill that. On the other hand, that approach puts the cart before the horse, as you said.
I guess I’ll just keep working and learning…
Sanderson’s website, unfortunately, is quite disorganized. Navigating its labyrinthine links can feel like perusing an old bookstore: you never find quite what you’re looking for, but you always come away with something fascinating.
As for building an audience for a book, I’m certainly no expert. All I know is what I’ve heard from those who’ve actually “arrived” in the published world, and they all seem to give the same basic advice: “Write more, write better.”
Take the example of Sanderson. He wrote thirteen complete, full-scale epic fantasy novels before receiving his first callback from a publisher (http://www.brandonsanderson.com/page/21/Brandon-Sanderson-FAQ#3e). His focus before publication was the development of his own craft, not the “softening up” of his potential audience. The great thing about publishers is that they’ve got whole marketing departments whose job it is to advertise your book to its target audience. Sanderson didn’t maintain a website during his years of wilderness-wandering; he was far too busy writing books. But, then again, the man’s prolific beyond the wildest aspirations of most of his peers.
It’s dang hard to write high-quality stuff. Maybe it comes easy to you — I dunno. My own experience tells me I can barely focus on one thing at a time. I’m over 40,000 words into a novel of my own, yet I don’t expect to finish it before the decade’s out. I have a day job, you see. Were I to write my novel while simultaneously attempting to attract an audience eager to read said novel, my estimated time of completion would easily double.
But perhaps this is all moot to you. Perhaps you intend to self-publish. If that’s the case, establishing an audience prior to publication may be the wisest course of action. I wouldn’t know — I’ve never read a self-published novel. Just make sure you’re not getting ahead of yourself.
Yes, I am planning on self-publishing, at least to start with. I’ve read quite a bit on the subject, and from what I can gather, the marketing process needs to start even before the book is published.
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