What We Bring to the Books We Read: The Writer and the Reader, part III

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Recently, Elizabeth Moon, a multiple-award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy — her works include the Deed of Paksenarrion trilogy, the Vatta’s War series, and the Serrano Legacy series — described in an email the experience of having a reader contact her about how one of her books had changed this reader’s life. The subject heading on Elizabeth’s email was “Why It Matters,” and I reprint excerpts of the email here with Elizabeth’s permission:

Readers bring their own life, their own beliefs and experiences, to our work…we can’t anticipate how the work and the reader will interact, we have zero control of that encounter. Sometimes they bring something that prevents their entering the work at all–they skate on the surface, looking for typos. Sometimes they’re briefly engaged and then tossed out when we hit one of their hot buttons or something that bores that particular person. We get emails asking why we don’t write more like so and-so, or telling us we’re almost as good as someone else (whom we don’t really like), or misunderstanding the whole point of the book, or criticizing our style or the cover art. We get emails from people who actually like the book, too, of course.

And then there are these, the ones where the book and the reader interacted with explosive force in a good way, and a way that we the writer did not predict. Could not predict. And for that reader, at that moment, only our book, with its peculiar (in the old sense) combination of words, could have done that–could have eased that heartache, or given someone hope that another attack on the brick wall was worth it…

I actually had already started planning this last post in my “The Writer and the Reader” series before I received Elizabeth’s email, and it fit so well with what I had intended to write, that I had to include it. I have received emails like the one Elizabeth describes — messages in which a reader tells me that my book has changed his or her life. Sometimes these changes are small, although still deeply satisfying from a writer’s perspective. I’ve heard from young readers who tell me that before they encountered my books they never liked to read, but that since reading them they read all the time. At other times, though, these changes are far weightier — parents and children reconciled, marriages saved, addictions kicked, even suicides averted.

There’s no predicting, of course, when a book might have such a powerful effect on a reader, and we as authors can’t write for the purpose of touching our readers this way. It’s kismet, really. Art touches us all in unique ways. I can’t explain why some movies move me to tears while others bore me to tears, nor can I tell you why one painting in a museum mesmerizes me while the one next to it leaves me completely unaffected. But we all know that this true, just as we know that just because we love a book or a piece of music that doesn’t necessarily mean that our friends or spouses will love it. I have a friend whose taste in music I respect a great deal. But there are times when he raves about a cd that I wind up not liking at all. These are matters of taste, right?

Or are they? I would argue that when it comes to books — and perhaps other forms of art as well — there’s more at work than simple taste. Literature is a collaborative enterprise. That has been the underlying assumption of my posts for the last three weeks. The Writer and the Reader. The act of creation doesn’t end when an author submits a novel. We, as readers, share in that creative act. All of us bring to the novels we read our own set of experiences, emotions, assumptions, intellectual interests, etc. Let me put it another way: If you and I pick up the same novel in the bookstore, take it home and read it, we’re going to come away from our reading experiences with different reactions. The book is the same — it’s not like different copies have different words in them. But we’re going to perceive those words in ways that are utterly unique. Take it a step further: I can read a book as a 20 year-old, a 40 year-old, and a 60 year-old, and have three different reading experiences. I’m not making a value judgement here. I’m not saying necessarily that the 60 year-old me will get more out of the book than the 20 year-old; just that he’ll get something different out of it.

So what? you might say. This is sophistry. It’s circular reasoning. Individuals will perceive all sorts of things in individual ways, so our books are different for everyone who reads them. Big deal. But I’m saying more than that. When we try to sell our books to publishers we’re often asked “Who’s the audience? What is your market?” As a businessman, I need to have an answer. As an author I want to say, “How the hell should I know?” There are 16 year-old boys and 84 year-old women who will love it. And there are some of both who might hate it, too. I want my books to resonate with as broad an audience as possible. I would hope that if you read my books when you’re 20 and 40 and 60, you’ll find something entertaining and thought-provoking each time.

That’s what makes great literature special. My daughter recently read To Kill a Mockingbird, and she loved it. She was totally captivated. Harper Lee wrote a book that spoke to readers in 1960 and still resonates with them fifty years later. What a terrific accomplishment. I should be so lucky. But when fiction works, that’s what it does. It reaches across time and space, age and gender, politics and religion and race and any other cultural boundary you can imagine. It might not reach each of us in the same way, but it reaches nevertheless. It is constantly evolving, remaking itself, maintaining its cultural and social relevance, even as it remains utterly static. The words never change, the characters and narrative threads are the same. And yet it captures new readers. I doubt that Harper Lee could have envisioned the culture in which my daughter is now immersed, but still her book reached through that culture and grabbed hold of my daughter’s heart.

Our books might not always change the lives of our readers, and they certainly won’t appeal to everyone. But I’m not sure those are things for which authors should even strive. Last week I made lists of things authors and readers can do to fulfill that covenant I described. What they really boil down to for the writer is this: Write the book you need and want to write. Write it as well as you can. And this week I’d add: Understand that some people won’t like it, and that some might not get out of it exactly what you want them to. That’s okay. Your readers are part of the process, too. When a book succeeds, it doesn’t just do it once. It does it again and again with each new reader.

David B. Coe
http://DavidBCoe.livejournal.com
http://MagicalWords.net
http://www.DavidBCoe.com

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32 comments to What We Bring to the Books We Read: The Writer and the Reader, part III

  • An interesting post, David, and I’m wondering how does an author find what kind of audience will fit a specific book or a series.

  • David–I have been enjoying your posts on this topic. Long before I dipped my toes in the novel pool, I was first and foremost a poet. One of the things I have always said in the context of poetry critique and workshop is that the poet writes one poem; the reader reads another. In fact, there’s probably a third poem occupying that same space–the interaction between the poet and reader creates it.

    I suspect that is true of novels too, as it is of any art.

    One of the seminal books that marked my childhood was Madeline Le’Engle’s “A Wrinkle in Time.” I remember how it hit me light a lightning bolt in my early adolescence and how much I identified with Meg. Flash forward several decades–I re-read it several years ago when I introduced it to my my own children. I was gratified to discover that not only did they love it as well, but the book was just as meaningful to me as an adult.

    That has not always been the case in re-reading favorite books from childhood. As a writer, I wish I could figure out what magic combination makes a story resonate across time and distance, but I think it is one of those ineffable things that we can discuss endlessly, but never come to a definitive answer. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I only hope that someday I will write a story that has that kind of power for a reader. And I think your recommendation is spot on: write the story that you must write.

    Best regards,
    Lisa

  • Wade, I think the short answer to your question is that you don’t. Writing to a specific audience can actually limit the appeal of your work. Now I realize that you asked about finding an audience as opposed to writing to an audience — and there definitely is a difference. But I think in a way we’re looking at it backwards. Write your book as you want to write it, and if the book is published and your publisher gets it distributed to bookstores, then the appropriate audience will find your book.

    Lisa, thanks. Glad you’ve been enjoying these posts. As you say, there are books that withstand that second or third reading later in life, and others that don’t. But just as we can’t write to an audience, we can’t write for posterity, either. It’s a shame, really. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could click a box on our word processor for “Bestseller” or “Classic” or “YA Sensation?” But no. We just have to write our books and hope.

  • David said But when fiction works, that’s what it does. It reaches across time and space, age and gender, politics and religion and race and any other cultural boundary you can imagine. It might not reach each of us in the same way, but it reaches nevertheless.

    Bleys read “The Left Hand of Darkness” last year. When he was done, we had a chat about what he thought of it (one of the lovely aspects about readers having kids who are also readers). The exploration of gender issues, which was so controversial when the book appeared in 1969, didn’t read the same way to him, a young man of the 21st century. He was more intrigued by the themes of religion and politics. Nevertheless, the book made a great impact on him. Which, as you said, is what authors always hope for. 😀

  • That’s really interesting, Misty. As you say, we think of that book as being significant not only for its quality, but also for it’s gender bending innovations. But of course, a young reader today wouldn’t be struck by it the way readers were forty years ago. And yet, the book still works. Very cool.

  • Sarah Adams

    Funny, I first read the Left Hand of Darkness about fifteen years ago. What leapt out and grabbed me was the idea of a friendship that deep. It wasn’t until I re-read it later that I thought of it as a love story. It’s an amazing book. I still remember as one of my seminal reading moments the point where Genly sees himself as the alien and everyone around him as the humans.

  • Sarah Adams

    May I ask an unrelated question that you guys may want to address in a different post? (And I apologize in advance if this hijacks the thread.) At what stage in the writing process do you start showing your work to other people? David mentioned at ConCarolinas that he keeps the excitement going while writing a new book in part by not talking about it in detail while it’s in progress. I think he described it as letting the creative pressure build and drive the writing, where as talking too much too soon would let out the steam and there wouldn’t be enough to get the words on paper. So, do you get an entire draft done before you let your group critique it? An outline? The first few chapters?

  • Thanks for the comments, Sarah. That’s a perfect restatement of my approach to writing a new book. It’s like letting steam build up — if I talk about it too much, that pressure dissipates and I lose that creative edge I need to complete the project. Now letting someone see a draft of a few chapters is different in a way, because those are sections that I’ve already written — that steam has been released, to follow through with the metaphor. Talking about unwritten chapters I still can’t do, but showing those earlier sections to people wouldn’t be a problem. When I wrote my first few books, my wife read them chapter by chapter as they were written, and that was never a problem. That said, I don’t have a writers’ group, and at his stage in my career I rarely show my work to anyone until I have a complete draft. The exception to this is when I’m trying to sell the first book of a new series. In that case I have to show it, because no publisher is going to buy something these days without seeing chapters.

    But the other thing to keep in mind is that this is just my approach. I happen to know that Misty talks about her stuff a lot before writing it, and that these conversations are a crucial part of her creative process. They help her work through issues that come up in plotting or character development. That old MW mantra: There is no right way to do any of this. What works for me won’t work for Misty. And it’s possible that neither of our approaches will work for you. As with so much else, you need to find your own way. I know that’s a bit of a cop-out, but it’s true.

  • I tend to use my wife as a sounding board and also for getting her opinions on things I’m planning. Sometimes talking about it helps get past issues I’m having or even allows me to talk through portions I hadn’t fully mapped out. Sometimes I even come up with an idea I hadn’t had before or go off in a direction I didn’t plan that works better. However, she’s the only one I really do that with. Otherwise I keep it bottled. The WIP I’ve got going now is a collaboration with her, so she’s in on the whole thing already and I print out my progress and read it aloud before we go to bed.

  • “The WIP I’ve got going now is a collaboration with her, so she’s in on the whole thing already and I print out my progress and read it aloud before we go to bed.”

    Okay, Daniel, that is one of the sweetest, most romantic things I’ve ever heard. That’s terrific. I want to use that in a book….

  • Barry King

    [Reposting from LJ]

    That touches on one of your earlier posts about books being like children, and now I can put my finger on why. It has to do with the nature of art.

    We use language to communicate; to pass information about the internal and the external world from one mind to another. That’s the normal use.

    But art is about the creation of a thing that has its own being. It may be built of words, which are busy communicating, but in actual fact, the full work stands on its own separate from the communication itself. This is easier to see in the visual arts; you would never mistake a painting for it’s paints, textures, or its colors.

    I find it often disappointing when an author (or any artist for that matter) tries to explain what they were attempting to do with their book/painting/oeuvre of some other format, because what the artist intended is a matter of the action of creation, not the art itself. The creation itself belongs to the reader, the audience, and what they take away from it is what matters.

    Children are like that, too. You say “this is my child” because it came from your body and you fed it, and cleaned it, and taught it, and raised it. But it’s not really yours. As Kahlil Gibran put it:

    Your children are not your children.
    They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
    They come through you but not from you,
    And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
    You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
    For they have their own thoughts.
    You may house their bodies but not their souls,
    For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit,
    not even in your dreams.

    The panster way of writing makes more sense from this perspective, because sometimes the story just has to write itself, thank you very much, and your plans are just getting in the way 😉

  • I’ve been reading your Magical Words posts these last few weeks and thought I’d throw you my two cents worth on the subject. One of the papers I wrote for my English Masters was on this very subject. Two points, in particular, came out of it that have stayed with me. First, to me (because this whole subject is subjective) the success of any art can be measured by the numbers of people it touches (both good and bad) and the depth of that experience. Thus, The Da Vinci Code has touched a huge audience, but on
    the whole, I’m guessing not so deeply that the work will endure as great art. Shakespeare, on the other hand, has also touched untold millions, and has managed to keep giving us a deep, rich experience that we come back to it.

    Second point — art must have an audience. Without the audience, the art does not exist. This is akin to the tree in the forest making sound — if you write a novel and never show it to anybody, it does not exist as a work of art (it exists as a manuscript of a novel, but that’s it). The audience is an essential component to the creation of art. Thus, Emily Dickinson’s poetry was never the beautiful and enduring art it has become until after she died and it was unleashed unto the public.

    Probably should’ve flipped those two points, but you all get the idea.

  • David, grand post. The relationship between reader and writer can be very intense and emotional. I’ve had people tell me the *most* private and personal things after reading one of my books, as if we had bonded over the plot and were long-time friends.

    Wade Thomas Markham, III, said, “An interesting post, David, and I’m wondering how does an author find what kind of audience will fit a specific book or a series.”

    Wade, it is a question that an editor will often ask a writer: “Who is your audience?” And it is not always easy to answer. As Gwen, my *usual* readership is 40+, female, college educated, white. As Faith, it is much more broad, and harder to categorize. A “beats me,” responce I try to make sound more thoughtful and knowing.

  • First, I want to thanks Barry and Stuart for reposting here at my request, Barry from a comment at my LJ blog and Stuart from an email he sent me about this series of posts. Barry’s connection between this post and the one I did several weeks ago about books being like our children is, I think, a terrific point, and it’s not a connection I had made on my own. But it really works with this aspect of creativity. Those books really are our children and we can’t control how they interact with the rest of the world once we let go of them. Cool point. Thanks Barry.

    Stuart’s email, I thought, was brilliant. Stuart is a good friend and a terrific writer. He also happens to have a really fun weekly podcast that he does with his wife, called the Eclectic Review — http://www.stuartjaffe.com/Eclectic.html. I think that looking at the depth of experience as well as the breadth is something that we have trouble with, because the business is driven by breadth related concerns while our art is striving for that depth. It’s a weird dichotomy. And that second point — well, that’s basically what all these posts have been about. Thanks, Stuart.

    And Faith, thanks for the comments. It’s always gratifying to know that we’ve touched people that way, and yet also somewhat strange and even unsettling. Art begets an intimacy that transcends the simple fact that artist and observer (writer and reader) are strangers.

  • AKendall (TheTony)

    I really enjoyed the post.

    I am one of the readers that were affected by some of your work, Mr. Coe. It came when I read “Weavers of War”. It took me a year and a half to get to the conclusion of “The Winds of the Forelands” series. Not because I didn’t like the series, but because I had kind of threw in the towel on fantasy. I turned to horror and lost myself. It wasn’t until I was walking by the fantasy section at my local B&N (on my way to the bathroom no less ha!) that I spotted WoW.

    I devoured it. Gobbling it down like a fat man with a cookie fetish and I have to say, it went down smooth and sweet.

    It gave me a reason to love fantasy again; expanded my literate horizons. It reminded me that I needed to read everything available in order to help me become a better writer.

    I am new to the novel pool as well. Trying to hone my skills as a short story writer, but I am starting to dabble in this deeper end.

    I have a myriad of questions in this regard, but I shall withhold them in hopes of keeping the post-hijacking to a minimum 8)

    Cheers,

    –Anthony

  • Thanks for the very kind comments, Anthony. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed Weavers so much. I have to say that it’s just about my favorite of all my books. And I’m glad to hear that it changed your mind about fantasy a bit. I wish you every success with your writing, both the short pieces and the novel. This site is all about asking and answering writing questions, so don’t worry about hijacking the post and feel free to return again and again. We cover a lot of topics…

  • AKendall (TheTony)

    Lots of topics? Well, you see, I have this rash… 😉

    Thank you for the open invite to ask questions. I know you’ve probably heard and answered the same incarnation of this question a million-trillion times, but do you have any suggestions for good reading in terms of becoming a better writer? Be it online or in print? What about your thoughts on writers group and online writing schools? Are any of them worth joining/enrolling?

    Thanks again,

    –Anthony

  • Yikes! TMI, my friend…..

    Good reading for becoming a better writer: I don’t have many specific titles. I know that Faith and Misty have some that they like and maybe they’ll weigh in on this and offer some guidance. You could also check our archives, because I do think that this has come up before and there may be references in past posts. Writing groups can be great — again, Faith and Misty had a wonderful writing group experience. I’ve never been a part of one that worked. What you need to find is a few other writers who are a) at about the same level of experience as you or perhaps (best for you) a bit more advanced but still willing to welcome you in; b) serious about working — not just writing stuff to submit to the group, but also willing to put in the time on critiques and such; and c) willing to be honest with each other about what’s good and bad in the pieces you share. Without any of these (that last one especially) the group probably won’t help you. But if you can find a good group it can definitely be a positive and helpful experience. As for online courses, I have less to offer. I really don’t know of any that would be worthwhile. I can say that this site and others like it can be helpful to people and I hope you’ll use us as a resource.

    But after all that, in my opinion the best things you can do to learn how to write are write and read. Writing is like exercising: it gets easier the more you do it. It’s like working a creative muscle. And reading — I don’t mean reading about the craft. I just mean reading good books and stories by authors you admire and like. That’s the best way to learn. You’re a discerning reader. You can tell what works in a novel and what doesn’t. And seeing what others do, both right and wrong, can help you figure out what to do (and not do) with your own work.

    I hope that’s at least somewhat helpful.

  • Anthony, you can check the “Recommended Reading” tab at the top of the page to see some of our suggestions. Most of them are more research-related, but there are a few good books on writing…especially Stephen King’s On Writing. :)

    And yes, Faith and I were both fortunate to have an amazing writing group. The longer I go on, though, the more I realize how rare that really is! But everything David said is correct – you want a group of writers who are in it to hone their craft. If you find yourself in a crowd of prima donnas, you’re better off staying home.

    David said I happen to know that Misty talks about her stuff a lot before writing it, and that these conversations are a crucial part of her creative process.

    Heck yeah! I was just telling Faith today about being out in the ocean with my husband during our vacation, bobbing on the boogie boards and yakking about ideas for the New Shiny. I’d talk until I had what I needed, then rush to the towel to scribble everything down. It’s just the way I roll. *smile*

  • Thanks for the comments, Misty, and especially for the recommended reading thing — I probably should have thought of that….

  • Great post, David. If it’s not too off-topic, how DO you answer that question about target audience with your business man hat on (as oppose your author hat).

    And where can I get me one of those business men hats?

  • Andrew, my glib answer is that if I knew how to bringing a target audience to my books, I’d be a bestseller. . . like, well, you. Maybe you should be answering this! I’m not sure that I have a target audience. I know that young readers like my work, though I don’t write YA and I do have a good number of older readers, too. My audience is pretty well divided by gender. So I can’t really pinpoint the type of reader for whom I’m writing. And so I don’t even try. Maybe I should. Maybe I’d be more successful if I could pinpoint my audience as well as Faith does in her comment. But I write what I write and I let it fall to marketing and promo folks and booksellers to find the right readers. I’m afraid that if I were to target my books consciously as a wrote them, they wouldn’t come out as well. So my businessman hat, I’m afraid, is pretty much a beanie….

  • David said I know that young readers like my work, though I don’t write YA and I do have a good number of older readers, too.

    My book was written with an adult audience in mind, but now it’s been nominated for the SC Association of Librarians Young Adult Book Award, even though it was never written or marketed as YA.

    Go figure.

  • You and me both, mate. And as we said at the Con, being a bestseller (for me at least) has largely been a matter of genre, thrillers being considered more mainstream than fantasy and therefore having more “market visibility.” That’s my beanie talking. I’m lousy at the business stuff and find terms like “target demographics” deeply depressing. I’d like to believe that a good book will sell because it’s, you know, good. That is, at last, the final fiction… I’ll stick with my writer hat. It has a little feather in the side.

  • And my hat isn’t much use for business, since it’s a leather tricorn with feathers attached. 😀

  • That’s great, Misty!! Congratulations!!

    Yeah, I prefer the writer hat, too. It’s worn and tattered, it’s not as handsome or impressive perhaps as the business hat. But it’s comfortable; it fits.

    Your hat is the coolest, Misty. No contest.

  • And my hat isn’t much use for business

    Oh, it’s good for business alright, the piratin’ business, arr! 😉

  • AKendall (TheTony)

    Thanks for the advice and suggested reading, David and Misty! I’ve read “On Writing” and thoroughly enjoyed it. Also have read all the “Hail Saten” books by Brian Keene and “A Writers Tale” by Richard Layman.

    I try to follow a 5 day work week (with 2 days off somewhere in there) when it comes to writing, with a daily goal of a 1,000 words. I even went out and bought a huge, oversized calendar so I could mark my progress. I sometimes doubt myself though (common for all writers I’m sure) and wonder if I am actually getting any better.

    Anyways, enough of my ramblings. Thanks a lot 8)

    –Anthony

  • […] I came across a blog by a group of authors and read a post that got me thinking. ‘What we Bring to the Books we Read‘ – I read it both from a writer’s viewpoint and a reader’s. It was all […]

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