Guest post by Brett Halbleib
One thing all authors have in common (or will have in common at some point in their careers) is this familiar quandary: should I write for my fans, or for myself?
Author Isabel Jordan is no different. When she was ready to start work on Semi-Human, the sequel to her bestselling debut, Semi-Charmed, she remembered a discussion she’d had long, long ago with her agent. Isabel had casually mentioned to her agent that she planned to kill off a secondary character, Mischa. The agent flipped out, telling Isabel she’d lose a lot of fans if she killed off Mischa. So, in that moment, Isabel had to decide if she was going to write the sequel she’d originally planned, or something altogether different—something that allowed Mischa to find her own happily ever after.
Before you can decide whether you should write for your fans, or for yourself, you have to be honest with yourself about your own personal goals. Why do you write? Is it purely for personal satisfaction? If so, then write whatever you want and ignore everyone else. Go for it.
But if you have other goals—you want to publish a book or short story, you want to start a blog, you want to become the next J.K. Rowling—then you better start paying attention to the input of other people. (First you must get fans, of course. That’s another blog post.)
This doesn’t mean you “write by focus group.” It does mean you listen. If you’ve never published before, go actively seek feedback. Ask friends or acquaintances for their input. Take a writing class and have your writing workshopped.
If you are published, be sure to read comments in conversation strings. Read reviews. Even the negative ones. Especially the negative ones. Your readers don’t know what’s in your head when you write something. They bring their life to your words, so your words may come off very differently to them. Sometimes, readers will affirm what you already know. Other times, they will surprise you.
Happily ever after...kinda
As for Isabel, she hadn’t expected the strong reaction to Mischa. But it turned out the agent was right. When reviews of Semi-Charmed started rolling in, a lot of readers singled out Mischa, and they advocated for her to have her own story, complete with a happily ever after ending. Isabel took the agent’s words (and her readers words) to heart, and she scraped her original plan, eventually giving Mischa her own story.
Of course, you also don’t want to go too far into the “fan-directed writing” side, either. Part of what makes you popular will be your ideas, your characters, and your voice as a writer. You don’t have to take every piece of reader feedback as though it is gospel. Isabel saw a clear and strong consensus emerge among her readers, so she acted on it. The trick is to find that balance, the place where you still derive a high degree of satisfaction and creative freedom, while also acknowledging the expectations of your readers.
Isabel’s second and third books sold well, and she is happy that her readers are happy. However, she wonders what direction the story would have taken had she written the sequel the way she originally planned—had she written it more for herself.
That’s the tradeoff. Like Isabel, if you want to achieve measurable success, you’ll likely have to make a few compromises that you wouldn’t have to make if, say, you were knocking out an assignment for your creative writing class.
So, what messages are your readers giving you?