Wednesday, May 9, 2012

How Much Should We Take Readers into Account as We Write?

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

5167671844_b26432c9ac_nSocial media has made it possible for readers to find out more about and connect with their favorite authors. Authors interact on Twitter, Facebook, and through blogs and websites with their readers.

And readers know how to find them. Author “contact me” links are prominently displayed on sites (or they should be, if they aren’t.)

I’ve noticed a good number of readers getting in touch with me—mostly through email, but also through my Facebook inbox (the second most popular method I see) and through Twitter direct messages.

The interesting thing is that most of the emails I get are readers requesting plot lines or plot points, or giving suggestions about future books.

At first I was really surprised at this. The only authors I’ve ever written are some YA authors I actually know after my son has especially enjoyed a book—because I just wanted to pass along a compliment. I know I haven’t made any plot suggestions to any of my favorite writers.

Then, though, I started seeing the notes as a useful tool. After all, I’m writing a series. Readers know my characters pretty well. And it’s gratifying that they care about them. Sometimes in their emails it sounds as if they would like to write their own fan fiction but would rather me do it.

How responsive should writers be to their readers? Well, of course it’s not a fast food type of relationship where writers just deliver the order. But I think it’s smart for writers to know their readers well. You’ve got to know your target demographic. You need to know what your readers like. And, if you want to continue writing your series (especially if it’s traditionally published…but this goes for self-published books too. Why continue writing a series without readers?) you need to make sure the readers continue enjoying the books.

Whenever I get notes from readers I always respond. I don’t make promises, but I tell them that I appreciate their feedback. Then I add their email/Facebook message/Twitter DM to a Word file that I review before writing the next book. If I’ve got several readers with similar suggestions you better believe it’s something I’ll seriously consider changing.

Things I’ve changed as a response to readers:

I’ve given some characters more time onstage, some characters less.

I’ve analyzed what readers said that they especially liked (there was a particular scene in one of my series that kept coming up)—and provided more of it.

I’ve dropped profanity from the remaining books in my series in response to numerous emails regarding it.

I’ve gone a step farther, too. Besides looking for data from reader emails, I’ve sought out and read any of my stinky reviews online …and analyzed them for a common thread. When I saw something mentioned repeatedly, I made a note of it. It’s not too hard to get past any hurt feelings when you’re being analytical—easier than it might seem, actually.

Where I think this approach would give me more pause is if I had a series with more of a linear storyline from book to book. Like the Harry Potter series. There we’ve got a series with a huge following and dedicated readers…vocal readers, according to Ms. Rowling. She had many letters requesting particular outcomes to the series, but stood her ground and kept to her outline.

But….she had a plan for the remaining books already in mind.

Where I think writers can easily be responsive to readers is series genre fiction where each book is written as a standalone or a standalone with a continuing linear subplot.

No, of course this won’t work for literary fiction. But literary fiction is so rarely in series form that it really doesn’t even apply.

Now this is where y’all convince me I’m completely wrong and it’s all about artistic integrity. :) And I do want to point out that if I strongly believed that the readers were out in left field about something, I wouldn’t change my story. So far, though—the readers have had some remarkable insights.

I change my story for my editors—why wouldn’t I for my readers? Who better to please?

What are your thoughts about our writing our own fan fiction?