Years ago, at a charity auction, I bid for and won a t-shirt because it had a bunch of writing quotes on it, including this one:
Writing is like prostitution. First you do it for love, and then for a few close friends, and then for money – Moliere*
Of course, there are more things to write for than that. You might start making up stories to entertain a child, or write more for respect and recognition than money or the simple enjoyment of it, but I suspect that when a writer starts being paid for writing – when it becomes a source of income – they (and others) have to wonder how that influences them. After all, saying you don’t do it for the money but for the love of it sounds so noble, but a writer still needs to eat and pay the bills. And there’s no better proof that someone likes your work than when they spend their own hard-earned cash on it.
But I’m less interested in “what do you write for?” as I am in the “who do you write for?”. By that I mean who a writer is trying to please while they’re doing the actual writing.
Me? When high on the thrill of inspiration, when the words flow and the story is rocking along, I’m having so much fun that it’s hard to believe I’m writing to please anyone but myself. When I’m struggling, forcing myself to write when not in the mood in order to meet a deadline, I wonder why I’m doing something that is so much hard work and I’m convinced I’m doing it for everyone but me: my agent, my publisher, and the readers.
But even when I’m having fun, the enjoyment isn’t entirely self-centred. I can think of two examples:
1) When I’m holding back information, or revealing it, I get a real kick out of imagining what the reader will be thinking at that point. I might know what’s going to happen, but they don’t. I’ve always had a few ‘three chapters at a time’ test readers, so I can pester them with ‘what do you think is going to happen next?’ questions as a book progresses. It lets me know if I’m being too obvious, or confusing them. I know I’m getting it right when they have no idea, but can’t wait to find out.
2) If the writing is dragging I think to myself: “Well, this is no good. If I’m bored, then the reader will be too. Time to make this more interesting”. It’s the fastest way to get out of the doldrums.
And yet, it’s not all about pleasing the reader. Which brings me to another favourite quote:
I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everyone – Bill Cosby^
I’ve seen newly published writers get all tied in knots after encountering reviews of their first book and/or hanging about on forums. A couple of readers don’t like prologues, or first person, or that creatures that were similar to cows were called something else, and the author panics. It’s as though every reader was their editor, and it leaves them thinking if they doing something wrong and should change the way they write.
After my first book was published I encountered the same feedback. Sometimes what readers hated in books – say, that it was written in first person – was something I liked as a reader. Sometimes what they thought was wonderful was something that I disliked intensely. One reader loved what another hated. It was perplexing until I realised that readers aren’t editors, they’re more like test readers. When my test readers disagree with each other about something, it usually comes down to a matter of personal taste.
It’s more obvious that personal taste is the problem when, for instance, I get the very occasional reader who objects to me putting gay characters in my stories. It’s not a flaw in the book; it’s just not to this particular reader’s taste. And that takes me back to the question of who I’m writing for. Obviously NOT a reader who objects to gay characters. They can always read something else. It’s not like there’s a dearth of books without gay characters in them.
The truth is, when I’m writing for readers, I’m not writing for all readers. Tastes in books vary so much, that it would be impossible to please everyone. So I’m writing for ‘my’ readers. But I’m also writing for myself, because while I gain a great deal of satisfaction and entertainment out of writing, a large part of that comes from thinking about the enjoyment my readers will have reading them.
*While this quote is usually attributed to Moliere, it turns out that may not be exactly true.
^Bill Cosby may be an odd person for a writer to quote, but it goes to show that some audience-creator issues are universal.