Terrible Tips Tuesday: Audience of None
If you look in most any book at the front or back you’ll see where the author thanks all the people who helped make the book possible: editors, agents, contributors on research, and so forth. Usually the author will thank family and friends who helped make the book possible, often by reading it. By contrast my book, Where You Belong, has no dedication page. If it did have one I could list a few internet screen names who helped in the critiquing process. And that’s it.
I have no flesh-and-blood family or friends who read anything of mine. And pretty much I never have. Other than teachers and Internet critique groups I’ve never had anyone to give stuff to. I have three siblings and I’ve tried a couple of times, especially with my older brother, but it never works out. It’s to the point where I had to blackmail him to read a story of mine recently. Seriously. He called wanting some money and I said I’d give it to him so long as he finally read the story I gave him on XMas. Like how some people have to pay for sex, I have to pay for someone in my family to read something of mine. Sad, no?
It’s because of this that my audience is just one person: me. I don’t have a sibling or parent or spouse who will read anything I write, so I have to rely on the Internet, which is spotty at best. I mean I have lots of material posted here, but I have no idea if anyone’s really read anything of it, especially if they’ve read anything through to the end. Since I’ve never had that reliable source, I’ve pretty much written everything from a purely selfish and solipsistic point of view.
If you asked me, I’d say that’s definitely held me back in terms of writing commercially for a simple reason: I’m a pretty weird guy. I need that “beta reader” be it family, friend, or significant other, to rein in my weirdness and thus make things more commercially viable. Of course an editor could help with that, but the Catch-22 is that you can’t get an editor until you can write a commercially viable manuscript and in my case I probably couldn’t write one without an editor.
The Empire Strikes Back is my favorite movie of all time, and so I always hoped in my younger days I could find some kind of writing Yoda to instruct me in the ways of the Force. Maybe if I’d actually gone to school for a writing degree I could have found someone to help with that. Of course I might also be panhandling on the street by now, having already used my liberal arts degree as TP. Anyway, when I first got into Internet writing groups I hoped maybe I could find my Yoda there, but pretty much every writer is just as self-centered as I am and is more concerned about getting critiques of their stuff than being a mentor to anyone. That and most people in writing critique groups are the ones in need of mentoring in the first place.
So the idea of the “beta reader” remains as elusive for me as a “soul mate” for most people. Really in some ways finding a beta reader and finding someone to date are similar processes. You mine the people around you first and then turn to complete strangers and then online, hoping to get lucky. And there probably are a few who do, while many more will never find anything stable. If you’re like me you wind up paying for it in favors or cash.
If you don’t have the beta reader you’ll probably end up like me. I’ve written dozens of novels and hardly anyone’s ever read one all the way through. When I’m working on a story, I can be pretty confident that no one will ever read it. In a way that’s a good thing because there’s no pressure and you’re free to do whatever you want. On the other hand, it makes everything pretty meaningless. It’s the old “if a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound” thing. If a writer writes a book and no one reads it, does it matter?
The point here isn’t for me to whine semi-coherently about my sad state of affairs. The point is that when you’re a writer, you can’t have an audience of none. You need at least one person who will read your words, give you support when you’re down, or the kick in the pants when you’re being lazy. You need someone to call bullshit on things that don’t make sense, to expose the plot holes and cliches you might have missed. Without that it’s too easy to become self-indulgent and fall into bad habits.
Of course there’s a problem for people on the opposite end of the spectrum. Basically think of any book by a famous author you’ve absolutely loathed. Odds are that person had editors, agents, friends, family, and colleagues read it and yet the book still stunk. When I recently read John Irving’s craptacular Last Night in Twisted River I noted that his wife/agent, his son, and his editor (among others) read it and yet the book was terrible. None of these people thought to point out that maybe when you murder someone and frame someone else for it, you can’t make the framed person out to be the evil villain. That seemed like common sense to me and yet somehow it came down the chute with no one mentioning it. My theory is that if you get to that level of success, it’s easy enough for beta readers to become corrupt, turning into “yes men” (or women) instead of honest readers. Because really if you’ve sold a dozen novels already you have a lot more clout and your editor might not be so willing to call you on your bullshit; it’s a lot easier for him/her to look the other way and just worry about getting the product to market. Since you’ve sold a lot of books already you’re pretty much guaranteed to sell a bunch anyway, so why should the editor risk pissing you off? As for your wife and son, when you’ve done a bunch of good books already and you’re getting older, maybe they become reluctant to say, “Hey, this really isn’t as good as your other ones.” Because it’s always hard to have that conversation about when it’s time to hang it up because that means accepting our limitations and mortality.
Of course maybe all those people really thought it was an awesome book. Maybe they didn’t notice what to me was a glaring hole. It’s just my opinion–and that’s the whole problem.
Thursday I tackle another depressing topic: crappy sequels that tarnish legacies in “Must Be the Money.”