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On Managing To Stress Over… Fan Mail

February 28, 2011

I’ve been thinking about fan mail a lot recently. When I knew I’d be blogging here, I figured maybe I could write something about it. I worried that fan mail wasn’t relevant to emerging authors, but the more I thought about it, the more I felt there were parallels, some right at the heart of the creative process.

I’ll admit upfront that I crave fan mail. I’m not buried under the stuff, but kind letters do arrive with some frequency. Any encouraging missive, a rambling email, a blog comment: each are lifelines tossed from the void into which we writers send out our fictions. Each of them jolts me with the revelation that somebody out there in the universe likes my writing! It’s a personal connection that has an immediacy that sales figures and publication contracts can’t touch.

Sometimes, though, even really positive letters contain innocent comments that knock my creative train off its tracks. This is especially true these days, since I’m writing multi-volume epics. Getting feedback on a book that’s finished and done is one thing, but hearing thoughts about what they expect from a book in progress is very different. The reader of Book One may mention things that they are looking forward to in Book Two. None of these are actual notes, but I mean things like…

Dear David, I enjoyed the book. I’m looking forward to the next one. I really want to see what happens when X gets to Y and meets Z. Should be awesome!

Or…

I love the way you set up the relationship between V and W. I can’t wait for them to finally get together in the next book!

Or…

The plot line I find the most intriguing is the one about how the U came to be. I just know you’ve got something great planned about them.

Can you guess my problem? If I really was going to provide all those answers I might just grin. Often, though, I read these comments with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, knowing that the very things they say they want most from the next book aren’t… ah… in it.  For example, I might have to respond that X never gets to Y, and Z chokes to death on a chunk of overcooked venison. V and W don’t hook up. They become bitter enemies instead. And that plot line about the U? Well, I thought that was boring and dropped it. Not what they’d like to hear, I imagine.

So what do I do when some of the things that people write to me saying they’re looking forward to are things that I’ve intentionally not written? These folks are the readers that like my stuff. They’re the ones that matter! I start to worry that the clever, expectation-defying plot line that I’ve come up with might not be so clever after all. It might just screw up a great relationship with those readers. What if they’re right? What if my choices are going to crash and fizzle? My mind spins into a widening worry spiral. I think about calling my editor. “Hey Gerry, that manuscript I sent you? Scrap it. I can’t imagine what I was thinking.”

That’s what reminds me how much published writers have in common with aspiring writers. There’s no magic milestone at which professional writers become immune to any of the fears/doubts/concerns that emerging writers feel. Getting responses from fans or bloggers feels to me like the published writer’s equivalent of sitting through a workshop. I’ve certainly watched the look of horror on the faces of people being critiqued as the workshop careens off into speculation of where the writer’s story should go. Different venues; similar substance.

In both cases, it’s up to the writer to figure out what to make of that feedback. What to accept and what to reject? When to stick to your guns and when to acknowledge that your aim is off? As with anything in making use of feedback (because, that’s basically what this is, even if that fan didn’t intend it that way) the writer has to strike a balance between the expectations of the reader and their own individual inclinations. We can’t ignore our readers, but I don’t think we should ignore our own impulses either. Finding the right balance can be really tricky. It was when I was a twenty year old in my first workshop. It still is now, a million published words later.

How do you find that balance? As with so many things in writing, that’s up to each individual. For me, it comes down to honestly facing the feedback that strikes a chord. Many comments just need to be shrugged off, but not all of them. Some things that readers have mentioned to me have changed my stories for the better. (Okay, maybe V really should get together with W.) Sometimes, readers remind me of things that I need to be reminded of. It’s my job to notice those things when they’re offered – just like it was my job to do that when sorting through workshop comments.

I don’t, however, change my stories to give readers what they think they want. That wouldn’t make me happy, and I’m not sure it would really make the reader happy either. The job of the storyteller should be to tell a tale that the reader can’t quite imagine, right? That’s why I love to read writers that do things differently than I do. When I’m reading someone else, it’s because I want to experience their story – not because I want to write it for them.

That’s where I end up. After all the worrying about not fulfilling expectations, and concerns about disappointing readers, I’m convinced that staying true to the particular story that arises in each writer’s particular mind is crucial. Feedback (or fan mail) that helps is wonderful. When feedback works against it? Well, that’s great too; it requires us to sharpen our confidence in our vision.

It’s risky, but what about writing for a living isn’t risky?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Mishell Baker permalink*
    February 28, 2011 8:19 am

    Dear David,

    I am currently reading the first book of the Acacia trilogy. I can’t wait until you reveal that the Mein are really time-travelling extraterrestrials from the future. The way you set it up is so brilliant.

    Lots of love,

    Mishell

    No, seriously, this is wonderful advice. I’ve only one story “out there” so far and I’ve already had a moment like that, when someone said they couldn’t wait to read my novel and find out more about the Empire. Uh, whoops, I said my novel was set in the -world- of “Throwing Stones,” not the empire. Only a handful of fans and I’m already on track to disappoint them?

    It’s oddly reassuring to know that the feeling never goes away. It reminds us that there is no level of success where you’re free of your fears and worries, so you may as well just start ignoring them now. 🙂

  2. tylertork permalink
    February 28, 2011 9:52 am

    Dear Reader,
    I hope you like surprises.

  3. Kari T permalink
    February 28, 2011 12:14 pm

    This is rather funny. I like to read author websites, and often they flat out say on their facts page “I’m not interested in your ideas”, something like that. I am a person who will write to authors if I really enjoyed their material, but it is only to thank them for their time and to let them know I liked it.

    But a question for David, we know it isn’t your fans, but who do you take suggestions from? Do you have beta readers?

  4. February 28, 2011 12:29 pm

    Mishell,

    Time-traveling extraterrestrials from the future? Drat! Why didn’t I think of that earlier?

    Although, on second thought… I did have a whole porthole to multiple worlds sub-plot that I cut out of the third Acacia book. Not exactly time travel, but pretty sci-fi for my fantasy world. Next time, maybe. Next book.

    Kari T,

    Well, I wouldn’t say I don’t take suggestions from fans. I guess I don’t solicit them, but on occasion they do effect future projects.

    I do have beta readers. First is my wife. She’s almost pre-beta, though. She sees everything first. And then about the same time I send a manuscript to my editor I ask a few other folks to read it as well. This time around, three former students from the Stonecoast MFA Program read it. They’re all well-versed in things fantastic, and they really did help me make the book better.

  5. Shawn Crawford permalink
    March 1, 2011 9:39 am

    Awesome post David! I guess it’s kind of comforting to think that even published authors I admire suffer the same angst as the lowly MFA student. Then again, I was kind of hoping that my crippling doubt might go away someday . . . thanks for shattering that illusion!

    On a more serious note, I think you’re right on about sticking to your guns. Knowing the difference between advice to shrug off, and good ideas that speak to your subconscious doubt is a vital skill. Otherwise you either end up writing by committee and lose your ability to create with any confidence, or you ignore things that might help you improve your story. It’s a fine line.

    But at the end of the day, it’s your story to tell. And defying readers’ expectations may not be what they thought they wanted–but sometimes it’s what they need.

    Shawn

  6. March 1, 2011 1:16 pm

    Hey Shawn!

    Yep, sorry to say, the angst continues… I do think it becomes more livable, but it never entirely goes away.

    That ability to know what to take on board and what to shrug off is so important. It’s hard to teach because it’s such a personal thing. Everyone has to find their own way to do it. And then, in a likelihood, they have to keep evolving how they do it over the years.

    That’s true for me, at least.

  7. March 1, 2011 6:19 pm

    Love the confession that the feedback can feel like getting workshopped. It is a continuum. ALL of it. Sometimes I feel dejected because I don’t get MORE fan mail, but then my works have a modest (but respectable) distribution and probably sell best by word of mouth — for which I am hugely grateful to the fans who talk about them to their friends and family. I confess I have changed the story, to a larger or lesser extent, based on feedback when it is close and intense feedback. But only because I got talked into it as the better solution. The over-arching story of my saga has been set for a long time. The fates of various characters has changed here and there. I did even grant my daughter, Angela, one “save a character card” in return for being such an awesome beta tester of my stories at our Saturday morning readings.

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