The other night we went to see a performance by a nationally renowned dance company. It was a performance in three acts, as it were, and while the first and third dances were, for me, very enjoyable and fairly traditional — one was set to Handel, the other to Bach — the middle one was, well, different. The music was discordant solo piano, the dance was filled with odd, angular positions and bizarre movements, and the costumes — well, for the guys, picture place mats covered with thick dark fur and strapped to their backs. I think they were meant to evoke a sense of the primitive. Okaaaay….
I’m sure that lots of people in the audience enjoyed the dance. I wouldn’t be surprised if Misty was saying right now “Ooooo, that sounds cool…” It didn’t work for me. And that’s okay.
When I write, I want to reach as wide an audience as I can. I want lots of people to buy and read my books. And I want everyone of them to like what I write. I want every editor to whom I submit short fiction or novel proposals to want to publish my work. I want every reviewer to rave about my writing. Ain’t going to happen. The fact of the matter is, we can’t please every reader. We shouldn’t even try. Because as consumers of art, we are all driven by our own particular tastes and idiosyncrasies.
I have several friends who write Military SF — and they’re really, really good at it. At least they’re well-reviewed and their sales are strong. The fact is, I don’t know if they’re any good because I’ve never read an entire novel of Military SF. I’ve tried, but I just can’t get into it. People apologize to me all the time for not reading epic fantasy, as if the fact that I write that kind of book means that they should change their reading preferences. On one level, I understand this — many of these people are friends who feel that they should read my work, but just don’t like fantasy. But I wonder: if I was a lawyer would they apologize to me for not suing more people. One of my closest friends here in town teaches violin, and yet I still haven’t started taking lessons. Should I apologize to her?
In one of his essays for the upcoming MagicalWords “How To” book, A.J. writes about the guy at a convention who corners you for half an hour so that he can tell you all about his book until finally you either a) relent and buy it, or b) give in to your initial impulse and kill him. If we have to try that hard to get people to read our books, chances are we’re talking to the wrong people.
Kidding aside, I do have a serious point to make. This is not a profession for the thin-skinned. Even among the tiny part of the population that regularly reads speculative fiction, most people have never read my work and never will. Of those who have read it, a significant minority (God, I hope it’s a minority…) won’t like what I write. I get good reviews, but I also get bad ones. I’ve had a good deal of success throughout my career, but I’ve also had my share of failures, of rejections, of books and stories that never have seen the light of day. People who enjoy epic fantasy with lots of political intrigue, well-drawn characters, and complex storylines will probably like my books. People who like mystery and fantasy and historical fiction might enjoy the new Thieftaker series. People who like hard SF probably won’t. People who like mainstream literary fiction probably won’t. People who like police procedurals but hate fantasy, would be well advised to steer clear of what I write. And again I say, that’s all right with me. Just as I should know my audience, readers should know their own preferences.
In his wonderful post on Saturday, Edmund illustrated the importance of knowing who we’re writing for before we begin to write. We also need to know our markets and understand that no matter how good our book might be, it’s not going to be right for everyone. If you write a beautiful romantic fantasy, chances are Baen Books isn’t doing to buy it (they tend to specialize in Military SF). If you write a terrific SF novel and send it to an agent who works mostly in mystery and romance, chances are you’re going to get a rejection letter. If you write . . . well, a book, and Kirkus Reviews reviews it, chances are it will be a bad review. That’s just Kirkus. But it doesn’t end there. You might write that terrific romantic fantasy and send it to all the right places and still get the rejections and bad reviews. Sometimes people just don’t like something. It doesn’t mean that it’s bad, or that you’ve failed. It means that on that particular day, that particular editor (agent, reviewer, reader — take your pick) didn’t like that particular book.
Rejection, negative feedback, uneven sales — these are all part of what we do. This is why we at MW tell you again and again to write what you love, to get into this crazy business only if it’s a passion, and to make sure that you’re thick-skinned enough to take it. The money sucks, and sometimes the process of putting your art out there for people to embrace or reject, to love or hate, can leave your soul bruised and sore. Just remember that there are good days, too. An unexpected royalty check, a good review, an email from a reader telling you that your book made a difference in his life. The trick to staying sane is controlling your reactions to both — don’t get too down when dealing with the crap; and don’t give in to euphoria when the good stuff happens. Write your book or story. Make it as good as it can be. Let that be its own reward.David B. Coe