The Writer-Reader Relationship

Posted by: Devon Ellington

The relationship between writer and reader is extraordinarily intimate.  When a reader finishes a well-written book, there is a sense of living the story thanks to the writer’s skill.  There’s a sense of connection completely different that the experience of watching something on the screen. 

But what happens between readers and writers off the page?  If a reader enjoys a book, very often the reader expresses appreciation to the writer via the website or a letter or going out to buy more of the writer’s books.  The writer, in turn, appreciates the response, and often thanks the reader and heads back to the desk to write an even better book to please the readers. 

What happens when readers try to dictate what writers write?  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle faced this issue when he had to resurrect Sherlock Holmes, and it continues today.  Some so-called fans grow furious or hysterical if a writer ends a series and chooses to go in a different direction.  They send vicious emails or even threats.   

Truly, all they have to do is not purchase the books.  

Sometimes, readers have good suggestions.  A close friend of mine wandered into a live chat on which I was featured a few weeks ago, about my book HEX BREAKER and the Jain Lazarus Adventures in general.  I answered questions about process and vision for the series, etc., and my friend tossed out an idea of something he’d like to see happen in the course of the series.  The idea was a good one, caught my attention, and we brainstormed back and forth enough so that I can go away and outline it.  Will the final book be the same as we discussed?  Highly unlikely, although that spark of inspiration will have fueled it (and I’ll dedicate it to him).  And why did it catch my attention, rather than raising my hackles as usually happens when the gist of a conversation is “You should write . . .” 

There are two reasons this was a positive rather than a negative.  First, the idea came from someone I trust, someone who is one of my Trusted Readers, understands my work and also my bad habits.  Second, the idea was in keeping with the vision of the series.   

Too often, reader suggestions have to do more with fan fic, in the sense of putting themselves in the context of the story rather than staying true to the vision of the story.  Only the writer truly knows the overall vision (add in the editor and maybe the agent once the writer shares that vision).  When I talk to people about writing for television series, I explain that they have to remember each episode has to carry forward the story and strengths of the regular cast and the guest stars are just that—guests.  If the episode becomes more about the guest than the star of the show, unless you’re a well-known writer with an “A” list guest star – the episode will be rejected.  In fiction, there’s a little more leeway – secondary characters have a chance for their moment in the sun.  But, far too often, reader suggestions focus on introducing a new central character to represent the reader that interferes with rather than enhances the writer’s vision for the series.  Without knowing the full arc of a series, a reader can’t know how his or her “great idea” will hurt the rest of it.  I’ve also noticed those who are the most vehement about forcing their ideas into other people’s work are those who “would write if I had time” but never “get around to it.”  It’s often a case of creative constipation used to punish a writer.  

Those would-be writers need to get over their own fears, put pen to paper, and explore those ideas themselves.  Not only would they have a creative outlet, they might gain an understanding of what it means to write a book, and all the different elements involved. 

As a reader, I love it when writers whose work I admire try something new.  I am not a fan of ”branding” or “niche”.  Far too many churned out books start to feel like all the writer did was hit “global replace” for character name and setting.  The only thing I need to know is that the quality of the writing is good.  I want the writer to try new things, explore different kinds of writing.  Supporting a writer’s forays into new territory is, to me, part of being a fan. 

As a writer, I listen to suggestions from readers, but I remain true to my vision for my work.  Unless I’m doing a work-for-hire to someone else’s specs, I need to remain true to my own stories and my own characters.   By doing so, I retain the integrity to my creative process and to the readers who were drawn to the work in the first place. 

Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction.  Her blog on the writing life is Ink in My Coffee:  http://devonellington.wordpress.com.  You can read an excerpt of HEX BREAKER at http://hexbreaker.devonellingtonwork.com.

23 Responses to “The Writer-Reader Relationship”

  1. Author Devon Ellington guest blogs today! | Jennifer A. Ray Says:

    […] http://blog.wildonbooks.com/?p=341 « Swallowing Darkness by Laurell K. Hamilton […]

  2. Laura Henion Says:

    Excellent piece Devon,
    I was happy to stop by and leave a relply.
    Best of luck with the series.

    Laura Marie Henion

    Enter the world of a Cop’s Daughter…
    if you dare….

    http://www.lauramariehenion.com

  3. Emily Bryan Says:

    Interesting post. I’ve been fortunate in my readers. So far, no threatening notes. And when one of my readers entered an intrigueing character name in my current contest, the kernel of a story idea bloomed in my mind. I contacted her to ask permission to use the name and she was ecstatic. We’ll see what happens if the story gets picked up by my editor and it turns out differently than she expects. Pop over to my website and check the Pirate Name Contest to see if you can spot the one I’m working on.

    Someone asked me once if I was afraid someone might steal one of my ideas. It would be impossible. If all the writers in the world were given the same premise, we’d still end up with different stories.

    http://www.emilybryan.com

  4. Devon Ellington Says:

    Thanks for the comments, everyone!

    Emily, I totally agree with you, and I think that’s one of the exciting things about writers and writing — a whole room full of writers can take the same prompt or idea and all the stories are wonderfully different.

  5. Wednesday, October 29, 2008 « Ink In My Coffee Says:

    […] a guest on Wild on Books today. Please stop by and leave a […]

  6. Leigh Savage Says:

    Very interesting post…I’m happy I stopped in to take a read…blessed be Leigh

    Best Wishes

  7. Leigh Savage Says:

    Also you can friend me at :

    http://www.myspace.com/leighsavage

    Hope to see you their…blessed be Leigh

  8. Jennifer A. Ray Says:

    Devon, thank you so much for blogging with Wild on Books today!

    I really like the topic you chose. I’ll be interested to read everyone’s comments on this.

    For me, I used to email an author when I enjoyed one of their books. I still do that sometimes, but now try to post it somewhere public, like their MySpace comments, their chat group, etc. Why not share with other potential readers when I like it, right?

    I can be a huge cheerleader when I like a story, and have been known to beg for sequels. Sometimes I do worry that maybe my excitement might pressure the author too much, so I always try to temper that a bit. Authors who know me from various internet hangouts realize that I’m just very excited about books and don’t mean to pressure, at least I think they do, but I really try to be careful with authors who aren’t familiar with me.

    I do like to share the speculations that a story has left me with, especially in the case of a series – but I am never upset if what I’m speculating on is different from the path the author’s story takes. The fun for me is in being surprised, trying to guess what will happen next.

    The thing I don’t enjoy is when an author writes a story based on what they think readers and publishers expect to see. I want something fresh from their own imagination. One of the biggest reasons I am a huge fan of the TV show Nip/Tuck is that they never fail to surprise me. They definitely break the mold. No matter if the story is a TV show, movie, or book, that’s what I look for.

  9. Yosha Says:

    Hi Devon!

    Thanks so much for stopping by to chat today. As a fiction reader,I am one of those who is almost always happy to wait to see what the writer has come up with. I actually put pen to paper, finished a book, and I’m now waiting to see if it will get published.

    I often send notes to authors whose stories touch me. And I’ve had wonderful responses. Some have even become friends in real life.

    I have had the reader experience you refer to … There is one series out now that I have read faithfully for several years, that is new and different and was, quite wonderful. Until the last book. I thought the author betrayed the heroine in the last chapter. Totally visceral reaction because I could see myself in that situation and couldn’t accept what the author “did”.

    I haven’t sent poison messages to the author – what’s the point? It’s her vision – her stories. But I will probably vote with my feet and give up a beloved series. In this case, regardless of the arc the author has planned, I just can’t hang with where the author has gone.

    It’s good to know that I have followed good reader manners. Dame Judith would be so pleased! 😉

    Great topic! Lots of food for thought!

    Thanks by stopping by Wild on Books. It’s a great place for book lovers to hang out!!

  10. Janine Chuba Says:

    Thank you for telling me about this page. Very interesting.

    I blog alot of my poetry/stories and it’s true once you get into a story line the readers want more.

    Mine being the other woman, told in 3 parts. The wife, the other woman, and now the husband.

    The more detailed, the more the reader can picture in their minds what is happening at that very moment.

  11. Janine Says:

    I know this post can address different genres, but I mostly read romance, so I will focus my response on that.

    As a reader, it is not for me to tell the author what to write. I love new fresh ideas, and I especially appreciate when an author takes a series in a whole new direction.

    I do send emails when I really love a book or a series… but sending hate mail or “anger mail” seems too juvenile, so I stear clear of that.

    As a fan of romance, I do have a couple of requirements… 1. I want my HEA, and 2. Do not kill off a hero or heroine in a later book. Yes, it’s the author’s creative mind and yes they can take a series any way they want. I love to read fresh and new characters, ideas and plots… but I don’t like investing in main characters only to have them yanked away at a later date.

    Which makes me wonder if THIS requirement is actually the same as asking an author to deliver a book the way I want it. Hmmmm, I could think this in circles forever. :)

  12. L.L. Abbott Says:

    Excellent points made, Devon, remaining true to oneself. When the possibility of compromise factors in, the writer has to feel comfortable with the potential outcome; knowing wherever else he or she may wish to someday take their stories.

  13. Brandy Says:

    I have always been in awe of the way an author can take words and spin them into stories that entertain and bring characters to life. I would never send a threatening letter to an author just because I didn’t like the direction the author was going. That’s their right. If I didn’t like it, I just won’t buy it.

  14. Devon Ellington Says:

    Thanks for all the comments. Very thoughtful.

    I think most writers appreciate hearing from readers about what they like. Some even appreciate hearing when readers don’t like something. Personally, if the reader fashions a good argument about why they don’t think something works, I appreciate the POV, even if I disagree with it.

    Let’s face it, not everyone’s going to love everything.

    Series do take twists. I’m reading a very well-written one right now. I find myself disagreeing with the direction it’s taking, but I’m interested enough in the writing and characters to at least hang in there for a few more books. If I keep getting frustrated, I’ll drop it; and I realize that, as a writer, if I keep frustrating readers, they will also drop me.

    Unfortunately, sometimes when readers get VERY attached to a series or character, they just get mean about it. I know an author who ended a series because she wanted to work in a new direction and actually received threats from readers, which is waaaaay over the line.

    Janine, I know what you mean — you’re reading in a genre that supports HEA and one doesn’t want the hero or heroine to die.

    I have question for you, though — in case you come back — if a series took a direction where one or the other character was widowed about midway in the series and then fell in love again — would you drop it, or can you think of a writer and/or characters whom you would follow in that kind of situation?

    I’m interested in anyone’s responses, actually.

    Many guidelines I’ve read are specific that a pair of heros/heroines in a romance novel can only be used in a single novel, because there’s nothing left to say once they’ve gotten together, but if the series was outside the normal romance structure, are there cases where any of you could see yourself following a pair that gets together, has a few adventures, then one or the other dies, and the one left falls in love again?

    Or would you only read a book where the widow/widower was already alone at the beginning, and one never really know the previous spouse?

    I’m curious.

  15. Elaine Cantrell Says:

    I enjoyed your post. When you spoke of churned out romances I nodded my head. I get tired of cookie cutter romances.

    Thanks,
    Elaine Cantrell

  16. Karen Cioffi-Ventrice Says:

    Hi Devon,
    This is an interesting article. I agree that writers need to follow their own voice while keeping an ear open for those reader suggestions that strike a note.

  17. Lea Says:

    Hi Devon:

    Excellent post with many points to ponder, I am an avid reader of a number of romance sub-genres, urban fantasy and I also enjoy some horror and science fiction work.

    I am true to one urban fantasy and about two or three paranormal romance series and will continue to purchase those books until they end or the work doesn’t interest me any more. I think as you indicated the author has to know when to tie off the main plot and sub-plots of a series and channel their creative juices into other work. When the work becomes rote I certainly notice and no longer purchase the books. On the other I know there are series out there that have a rabid fan base and I’m sure those writers feel pressured to continue or write in a direction that readers request. I think that is wrong because all it serves to do is stifle creativity.

    As an example, a series I was loyal to for some time completely lost focus in the last two books and I learned through a couple of readers groups that if you want to follow the storyline a reader has to go to this particular writer’s website board to read about characters. That is where the mythology behind some of the newer characters in the series and even some scenes are written up discussed with fans. Hmmmmm Needless to say, I don’t purchase this author’s work anymore. But that is it, you just don’t patronize the work any longer, enough said and done.

    If I really enjoy an author’s work and notice in the critique at the back of the book that the writer appreciates hearing from readers I will send a complimentary e-mail. However, I would never think of suggesting what direction a writer should take their story or send hateful e-mail if I don’t like the work. That is inexcusable and moronic.

    Your book sounds very interesting Devon. I will read more about it and perhaps add to my TBB.

    Sorry to ramble. 😉
    Best Regards
    Lea

  18. Jennifer A. Ray Says:

    I have to say this has been a really interesting topic, and I am enjoying everyon’s responses.

    Thanks to everyone who has joined the discussion and to those who soon will! 😀

  19. Ann Westerman Says:

    Dear Devon,
    Whenever I have the opportunity to read something that you have written about writing, I click the link and go read it. I always learn something.Thank you for your willingness to explore your writing process and talk about what you have learned.

    As for the reader/writer relationship, I wouldn’t presume to tell one of my favorite authors what to write next. I think someone said it earlier, and I concur…it is always a joy to pick up a new book by a favorite author and see where the adventure is going to take me next. I like the idea of a complimentary email that Lea mentioned. I had not thought about that before.

    I don’t as a rule write authors,but I did write a letter to Nicholas Evans, author of the Horse Whisperer. I was absolutely glued to this book from the first paragraph to the violent, unexpected, and abrupt ending at which point, my whole system cried, “NO.” and, I sat down and wrote Nicholas Evans all the reasons why his main character, Tom, would never, could never, have committed suicide.

    Mr. Evans sent me a beautiful postcard picturing the front cover of the book and wrote a wonderful tender message on the back thanking me for the letter, my interesting thoughts about his book, and acknowleging my feelings about Tom, but at the same time justifying very gently his ending. I still didn’t agree with him, but I have treasured his response and ,must say, it was a little gratifying to see that when Robert Redford directed the movie, our beloved main character did not die in the end.

    What I have learned about me as a reader is that I don’t think about the author of the book except to record his or her name so that I can check the next one out of the library, unless…. the book is so “good” that i become intrigued with the author and go on a search for her personal stoy…Elizabeth Goudge for example… or Laurie King…

    Thought-provoking article, Devon, thank you,
    Ann : o )

  20. JudyB Says:

    Hi, Devon!

    Thank you for providing a link to this site at The Writing Life at iVillage.com. I hope all the gentle writers on that board come over to read this. (I keep telling them they should listen to everything you say.)

    You made several excellent points. I am now rethinking my old PI mystery series and have a plan – which may or may not involve a series of flow charts. 😆

    You’ve got me itching to get back to fiction. Think I’m sentenced to another several months in the kitchen, though, while I finish my first cookbook. At least I’ll be well fed. I tend to write through meal times when I’m caught up in a story.

    Thank you again.

  21. Janine Says:

    Hi Devon,

    I finally made it back and saw your question. For me, the answer is no. I could not put my heart into one character, have them die, then put my heart into another character for the hero/heroine to fall in love with. I have read books that loses a significant other almost immediately, before I am engaged with the character, and I can enjoy those just fine… but I haven’t yet read one like you mentioned above.

    Personally, I just have a very hard time with it. One series I’m thinking of had a spouse die after a few books. The spouse wasn’t even a main character in any of the books, but to me the spouse was a symbol of hope for others. When the author killed off the character, I stopped reading. Basically I lost trust in the author to not decide to kill off a main character down the road just to try a new twist.

    Of course, it is always the authors prerogative to write as she pleases. If it works for her, then great! There are so many good books and authors out there that I have many others to pick from. :)

  22. Linda Says:

    This is an interesting article. I used to be in fandom but left it because a lot of fans were becoming like what you described. It was an science fiction/spy/action TV show, and one of the fans decided to write a reunion script and submit it to the studio. The problem was that she came into it with the attitude that she was going to “fix” the series by imposing her “universe” on it. Her script had nothing do science fiction, spies, or action. Instead, she’d married off all the characters and introduced new characters like spouses and children, and the stories were about their lives intertwining with the series’ characters. If anyone voiced their opinion about her universe, she became quite nasty. She, like a lot of fans, developed a sense of ownership to something she didn’t own.

    At one point, I did suggest she might want to try writing professionally (this was before the script), to which she sniffily replied, “Some people may have editors, but I don’t.” Some people are held back by their own attitudes.

  23. Nome Says:

    nice article !

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