01 December 2009

Write Like Your Readers Are Dead

Okay, so I'm cheating, a little. This blog post appeared yesterday as a guest post on The Lipstick Chronicles. But I have a pile of work to do, my sister is in town visiting and I don't have time to write a whole new blog post. And I think this is an interesting topic. So, here, recycled, it is:

An important note to my readers: I love you, I do, I really do. I think about and care about you a lot. Just not all the time. That’s what this is about. That said…

Let’s get the hard part of this over with first. I killed Ray Sharp, my series hero. I killed him halfway through my most recent book, SHANGHAIED. He was the narrator, too. The narrative duties were taken over by his sidekick, Wen Lei Yue, who will now take over the series as well.

That made some people mad. “You killed Ray Sharp??? I'm finished with you. I read 3 of your books and liked them but no more. Forget it from San Diego.” – A recent email.

Only one outraged reader has threatened physical violence, although I have been warned to steer clear of some others by friends and some bookstore owners.

One frequently quoted bit of sage advice to writers is: “Write like your parents are dead.” That has always struck me as sensible. Self-censorship seldom gets the job done. But how far can you take it?

Should I write like my readers are dead?

Part of the problem is that there are all kinds of readers. I have received a few emails from people who thought it was “way cool,” “fantastic,” “astounding,” “brave,” etc. that I offed Ray.

And some readers, you just can’t be quite sure what they think. SHANGHAIED, which mostly got excellent reviews, got one review that said: “Sleazy! That’s how I would describe this book. With lesbian relationships and heroin usage, these are topics that many of us have not experienced and do not intend to experience. Through much of the novel there is constant adventure…” The review went on at some length in a way that made it seem like the reviewer really liked my “sleazy” novel. Go figure. (I kinda like sleazy novels myself, sometimes. So maybe it was meant as a good review.)

The worst review any of my books has ever received, was also for SHANGHAIED – an Amazon review. Oh boy did that reviewer have some terrible things to say about the book, and about all of my books, which he/she hasn’t liked since the start. But they’ve read all four of them, carefully, apparently. (Maybe it was for the sex scenes. I’m cool with that.) Hmmm.

My father doesn’t like the sex scenes in my books. They make him uncomfortable. Well, too bad, Dad, I’m writing like you’re dead anyhow.

At one point, my father was considering writing his memoirs. (He has had a memoir-worthy life.) But then he came up against the fact that he only wanted to be so honest in his memoirs, knowing that his kids would read them. Hmmmm, so I guess you have to write like your kids are dead, too.

Does all this mean that we writers have to write like everybody’s dead?

Writing is a solitary profession. Is it a selfish one, too?

There are, unfortunately, those people who we writers do have to please: agents, editors, publishing company sales and marketing people, reviewers (well, some of them, some of the time, anyway) and booksellers. Unless we want to simply write for the sheer enjoyment of it and then put the finished products away in our closets, there is only so solitary we can be.

But, how much can we allow that to affect us and still write the books we want to write?

The fact of the matter is, that when I killed Ray Sharp I didn’t give a moment’s thought to what my readers would think. I was thinking about the story, and the characters, and how to challenge and excite myself creatively. As for my readers — they might as well have all been dead when I wrote that scene.

And the ones who like my writing, like my books, even most of the ones who liked Ray, are okay with that. They get a better, more interesting book to read because I didn’t take them into account. Just like my parents. Just like my Dad could write a really great memoir if he wasn’t worried about me reading it. (Come on, Dad, I can take it.)

None of this is to say that I don’t love, cherish, respect, desire, lust after and suck up to my readers. I do. I want them. I crave them. All of them. I need them. I need and want you, whoever you are.

But the way in which I can repay readers for the time they spend reading my books and the dollars they spend buying my books is to make every effort to write the best possible books I can. And for that, they are pretty much stuck with trusting me.

It’s implicit in the bargain we’ve made. If they buy and read my books they are welcome to like them or not as they see fit. And they’re welcome to let me know how they feel about them. (I’d prefer not to get punched, however.) And I always listen, and 99.9 percent of the time respond, politely.

But I gotta tell you, when it’s just me and the computer and the leaf blowers and barking dogs and delivery trucks and vans and the occasional helicopter overhead outside, everybody else is dead to me. And if you want me to keep writing books that some of you are going to love, and some of you are going to hate, that’s the way you want it, too.

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