ART VS. AUDIENCE: More Questions from the New Guy

When asked how he became a bestselling author, Elmore Leonard replied, I started writing only the parts people wanted to read. 

Now, I’m paraphrasing an interview I read years ago, so the quote might not be exact.  But the sentiment is something that has stuck with me.

I only want to write the parts people want to read. 

I never want to bore and audience.  I want don’t want their minds to wander away from the page.

Of course, you’ll always bore someone.  If you keep the action at a fast boil, some will clamor for more characterization, more personal background (they want to know characters’ favorite breakfast cereals, the names of their pet iguanas, what they read on the can).  But Delve into the protagonist’s life too deeply, and others will thumb through the pages wanting you to "get on with the plot, damn it!"  The solution seems obvious.  Find the middle ground and you’ll find the biggest possible audience.  Right?

I can’t help but feel that danger lingers in that line of thinking.

Alexandra Sokoloff wrote a great post yesterday on style.  What happens to style (or voice, or storytelling) when the writer questions his choices based not on his own preferences, but on the preferences of this unknown audience?  And who can really guess what people want?  If I constantly try to please everyone, who do I really please?

So instead, do I ignore this invisible audience, and write from instinct and heart?

A voice in my head screams, "No friggin’ way." 

I can think of two best selling authors who prove my point (and no I will NOT name names).  They’ve sold millions and made millions and pretty much have a guarantee that whatever they scribble down will be published.  But ask their fans, and I’ll bet they enjoyed the authors’ middle works the best, not the 10,000 page rambling "epics" they’ve just produced.  My guess is that these bestsellers have let their egos take the wheel and jammed their audience in the back seat.

Then what’s the solution?  Do we strive for art, audience be damned?  Or do we try to see our work from another perspective and let the thought of audience become our internal editors?  And if the latter is the case, how do we keep from losing our voice?

The new guy needs answers people.


13 thoughts on “ART VS. AUDIENCE: More Questions from the New Guy

  1. Al

    Here’s what I think:

    Write to your strengths. Work on your weaknesses till they become strengths. Write what you feel passionate about. Don’t worry what other writers are doing. Don’t imagine you can predict readers’ reactions — the only reaction you can be sure of is your own. Challenge yourself. Surprise yourself. Make yourself laugh and make yourself cry (preferably at the same time). Embrace your eccentricities. Concentrate on being unique.

    Of course, I said as much to Dan Brown but he thought he knew better.

  2. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Mike, I think there’s a happy medium. As I was rambling on about yesterday, I get quickly bored, if not overtly hostile, if there’s no art and elegance involved in writing. But I’m not a big fan of rambling epics, either – story is my favorite part of a book.

    I absolutely believe you can write to an audience without pandering to them. For me the most important draft of a script or a book is the “audience draft” or “reader draft”. Once a story is pretty well in shape I do several passes through the book, deliberately putting myself in the reader’s chair and rewriting and polishing to create exactly the sensory and emotional experience I want the reader to have. I continually ask myself – “What do I want the reader to FEEL, here?” The reader doesn’t get to decide these things for me – I do all the deciding – but I never, ever forget that the reader’s visceral and emotional experience is the most important thing to get right.

    No book is going to work for every reader, but I think it’s our responsibility to make our books as full an experience for OUR particular readers as we can.

  3. spyscribbler

    I write for my audience; why do I write if not to express something TO someone? That’s not to say that I tell people what they want to hear. I usually feel passionately loyal to my characters, so that drives much of my writing.

    In the end, everything comes down to what works for you–as long as it’s working. And I don’t think that striving for art and writing for an audience are two mutually exclusive things.

    I guess I come down on the side of expressing your art to an audience. If the audience doesn’t understand, then either you’re saying something unmarketable or you’re not saying it in a way they can understand. Don’t you want to say it in a way they understand?

  4. Karen Olson

    I think it’s easier these days for crime writers to write what they want and at the same time be marketable, because there are so many offshoots of this genre right now; there’s something for everyone. If I wanted to write about a birding sleuth, there would be an audience for it. If I wanted to write a police procedural, there would be an audience for that. I know it’s what writers do with their chosen subject/plot that will bring readers to them, but crime/mystery readers are so diverse that I think anything goes.

  5. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Mike,Good post. Good questions.

    Alex’s response seems to me to be reasoned, practical and flexible.

    In public relations, I always think about how my words will affect target audiences. I absolutely adjust until the message is the most effective possible for that audience. No question.

    In my fiction, I write the story I want to write first. Then, like Alex, I edit to make sure that what I wrote is what I wanted to say. Then, I edit it at least one more time to make sure that it jives with SOME of my audience’s expectations. This has become more important as my series progresses. I can’t suddenly change Sasha — it’d betrayed my base. I have to do it in a way that my current readers will believe. It’s a constraint I hadn’t anticipated with the first book — but I don’t mind it either. I embrace the challenge; it’s fun.

    What has surprised me is — though I had a particular audience in mind, my readership is far broader, diverse, than I ever could have anticipated.

    So, I guess, it’s important not to stymy yourself ahead of time for some imagined audience.

    Heart first.Adjust as needed.

  6. Louiseure

    Good questions, new guy.

    I think Allan’s comment listed at the top of these responses says it all. And he practices what he preaches, if his own work is any indication.

    I don’t think we can write to an audience or for a market. Those things are too fickle. And as damnably slow as the publishing business is, the market and the audience still move faster than our pens and our published works. We’ll be out of date before our creations hit the shelves.

    Be true to your school, Mike. Write from the heart and listen to your instincts to produce the book that only you could have written.

  7. Mike MacLean

    Some good responses here. And, while the perspectives on the issues are different, they might not conflict with each other.

    I don’t think writers can go wrong writing to their strengths as they work on their weaknesses, and trying to predict what an audience might want seems damn near impossible, especially in the slow paced publishing world.

    But I like the idea of thinking of the reader in the editing process. I like the idea of being accountable to someone other than myself. Perhaps it gives me hope that someone might actually read this thing.

  8. Elaine Flinn

    You might want to ask your characters too, Mike…find out how they want the reader to perceive them. Alex has a good editing system – kinda reminds me of mine, so naturally I want to compliment her. 🙂

    Being ‘true to thine own self’ is great, but a writer has to be true to his/her audience as well…after all – isn’t that who we’re writing for?

  9. Guyot

    Here’s the reason writing to the audience does NOT work…

    Who’s your audience? If you’re trying to gauge the reader during editing, which reader is it?

    Every reader is different. That’s why some readers buy every John Sanford book, and not one Lee Child. And vice-versa. Why Evanovich sells five books to every one Carl Hiaasen sells. Why people read Scottoline and not Grisham, or the other way around.

    And you hear this from EVERY huge selling novelist (except Nick Sparks) – what made them succesful was writing the book they wanted to read. YOU are the only reader that you can ACCURATELY predict.

    Once you start trying to get inside the reader’s head, you are doomed. It leads to second-guessing, anxiety, and ultimately – worse writing.

    Sunshine’s comment is exactly right in my opinion.

  10. Al

    Louise: you make me blush.

    Guyot: as always, you said it much better than my half-assed attempt.

    I think there’s a little bit of confusion in the comments over ‘reader’ and ‘audience’ (readership). All writers become readers when they’re editing. A reader isn’t an audience, though. An audience is a collection of unique individuals, each of whom will respond differently to the same set of stimuli. Listen to Paul: Trying to please them all will make your shoelaces come undone. Honest.

  11. Duane

    I’m chiming in late here, but Sunshine nailed it. The best reason for writing a book, I think, is because you can’t already find it somewhere on a shelf.


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