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Writing and Acting

One of the biggest myths about writing is that it's a solitary pursuit, something mysterious born of weird inner genius that has no relationship to the reader, and that above all is not commercial because commercial equals accessible to the "common herd." But that's most often not the case. Even the "great" authors that you study in school were for the most part very commercial in their time -- Dickens and Dumas, Goethe and Shakespeare. They sold very well and were enjoyed by huge audiences. And there is the word -- audiences.

Writing is like acting. It's performing a story for an audience. In the beginning, stories were performed. A storyteller told a story to a group of people who listened. Sometimes he or she sang or played, and storytelling moved into music. Sometimes he or she recruited people to speak lines, to break the story out into recitatives by different people -- and storytelling became drama. And finally sometimes the story was written down for other people to read, people who hadn't been there for the performance because they were separated by time or space -- and from this comes all literature. It's all one thing. It's all methods of telling a story to an audience.

But sometimes writers forget there is an audience. You can't see them. It's not like being on a stage, where the audience and their reactions are clear. Traditionally, you finish a book and half a decade later someone may buy it in a store and read it. Do they like it? What do they think? How do they react to your words? Mostly, you never know. Love it or hate it, you sing into a black box and a decade from now someone will judge you for it.

Can you imagine producing a TV show where you had to wait five years for the Neilsens? Or a band onstage waiting a decade to hear if they were applauded or hissed? It's crazy. It makes responding to the readers impossible. And so we get the idea that writing isn't a dialogue but a solitary act of reclusive genius, cut off from the world and mainly irrelevant. Which is where we were ten years ago, with plummeting sales of books and fewer and fewer people saying that they read for pleasure.

But that's not how Dumas and Shakespeare wrote. That's not how writers did things before the mid twentieth century. They wrote for vibrant audiences, for live theater or serialized stories in newspapers, for magazines and periodicals, for quick turn around and constant dialogue with the authors. When a new section of a Dickens novel came out in the paper, people lined up to buy it and discussed it all over town like a new episode of a favorite tv show today. And they wrote him. They wrote the paper. They angsted and speculated, "Will Little Nell die? OMG please no!"

And authors responded. They wrote back. They read the letters to the editor. They looked at how a story in Weird Tales had done and wrote another for publication four months later. They were acting live, on stage, with a real audience. Even in Sci Fi, that's how it worked in the golden age. Lovecraft and Bradbury didn't labor for six years over a book. Six months, tops! Turn it around and get it out, topical and fresh, taking the issues of the day and responding to them while they were still relevant.

After a brief hiatus of half a century, that's where we're going again today. Writers are once again acting in front of a live audience. Because of the internet, instead of standing in a black box we're standing on a brightly lit stage. We can see you and hear you. We can tell how our words are being received. Too much? Too little? Did I step on that laugh line or let the silence drag on too long? Is this plot working or does it need more explanation? Are you rooting for the right thing or am I blowing the punchline? Are you all singing along with the chorus or looking for the doors? It's not the death of literature -- it's going back to the way it was through most of the last five hundred years. Writing as we knew it was an anomaly, and it's over. It's not about solitary recluses toiling for decades on a single master work that is so obscure and profound that only the best educated can understand it, and who by discussing it prove that they are part of a class far above the common herd. What would happen if people actually read?

Well, they are. Young people are reading more, and so are older people. Ebook sales are doubling and doubling. People are reading, just as happened in the mid nineteenth centuries when magazines and papers gave the newly literate population Dumas and Dickens, just as happened when the dime paperback gave a vast audience to Lovecraft and Bradbury. Writing is becoming storytelling again, a collaborative effort between writer and audience, live onstage and in your pocket in the format of your choice. And what a welcome renaissance!

For example, I can see discussion of my books in real time over on Gateworld -- and answer your questions the same day! Why is this good? Because I can see what people are getting and what they aren't, what they're responding to and what's not working, what they're hoping will happen and what they dread, what it seems I've set up and what nobody mentions. While I'm writing the next book. Not five years after I've written the next book! If I know there's a problem I can fix it. If I know something is going I can run with it. If everyone is rooting for X I can make X happen!

But wait! Why should I? Why should I respond to the reader rather than simply give them the benefit of my genius? Why does it matter what you think?

Well, two big reasons! First, I want you to keep reading. How long does it take a reader to give up on a book or an author? With a new author I'm not invested in, it takes about two bad chapters. Then I put the book down and somehow never get back to it. With an author or series I love, two bad books. I'll read one disappointing one and buy the next on the theory that maybe she was having an off day or year or something. But the second bad one? I'm telling my friends that she's jumped the shark and it's a shame because I used to enjoy that. So that's how long I've got with you -- somewhere between two chapters and two books. If I start steering off a cliff, I need to know that fast! And the only way I will know that is listening to you.

Second, I want you to keep reading. Storytelling is a compact between writer and reader. If you buy a mystery novel, you expect to be baffled by Who, What, How and Why whatever it was happened. But you expect those questions to be solved by the end of the book. Whether or not the main character solves the mystery, and whether or not the bad guys face justice, you expect the mystery to be resolved to the reader's satisfaction. Imagine if at the end of the book you still had no idea? It's frustrating. It makes the reader angry. The author has broken the compact. And you can bet they'll never buy this author's book again. In the romance genre, you know that this is the story of how X and Y get together. Whatever problems or tribulations they face, on the last page X and Y will be together. If, four pages from the end, Y tells X that X is horrible and leaves, the reader is mad. The author broke the compact. They delivered an unsatisfactory performance, and they get booed.

But, you say, what about things other than genre fiction? What about things where there isn't a compact like that? There is. The compact is to deliver a satisfying story. The compact is to deliver a story that the reader likes and enjoys. And so what the author needs to know is what kind of ending feels right, even if it isn't happy. What is suitable and satisfying, even if it's sad? And of course there are things that the author can do to make sure the reader understands this is a tragedy, not a romantic comedy -- to set up the correct expectation. For example, Hand of Isis is a tragedy. And you know on page one that lots of the main cast are going to die. Hopefully long before the ending the readers have figured out that this is not going to be a happy ending.

So how does the author know if they're hitting the marks? The same way an actor does -- by listening to the audience. It's all storytelling. Writing and acting and music just use different tools to communicate.



( 20 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 24th, 2012 02:56 pm (UTC)
I think that in order for a good ending to work, there has to be true jeopardy. JRR Tolkien calls it "eucastrophe", the opposite of catastrophe -- that moment when you think, "OMG they're going to fail, they're going to die, I don't see how in the world they're going to get out of this!" And then they do. And then the story turns. Gollum falls into the pit in Mount Doom, Luke Skywalker says, "I am a Jedi like my father before me," when Harry Potter isn't dead after all, the impossible, the improbable happens and suddenly against all odds the story turns!

But for that moment to work, the reader or viewer has to believe that maybe it won't. If our guys coast to effortless victory, if nobody ever dies, if there's no real sense that maybe it's all going to go badly -- that moment can't exist. That moment where you stand up and cheer and bounce around the room and go "YES! DUDE!" depends on not being sure until that very moment that you weren't going to lose.

And so characters have to die. There has to be a price. There have to be real losses. Fred Weasley has to die. You have to believe that Luke's death may be the price of the Rebel Alliance's victory. The blows have to be real. Not everyone lives to see the new day. That's truth, and that's truth in storytelling. New days always have a price. And ultimately, cheap is not worth very much to the reader.

Also, as you point out, you can't give away the entire plot and spoilers up front! But it's a fairly sad commentary on our society that one can't assume that a writer is against genocide, that "against genocide" isn't the default position! But I suppose it isn't, which makes the message even more necessary and compelling.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 25th, 2012 09:55 am (UTC)
Oh yes! It's gotten very complex! Now to tie it all up....

I loved that scene in Harry Potter too. That, and when Neville wins the House Cup for refusing to go along with his friends when they're wrong.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 25th, 2012 02:00 pm (UTC)
That's a good point that Mel is kind of a Neville. And John is definitely in the central role like Harry. Which means the main characters in greatest jeopardy are John and Rodney, right?
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 24th, 2012 03:49 pm (UTC)
Oh, good comments! I'd like to spread them around, if you don't mind...
Sep. 25th, 2012 09:55 am (UTC)
Oh certainly! Be my guest.
Sep. 24th, 2012 08:02 pm (UTC)
I think I did whoop out loud at work while reading the last book.

Anyway, I am very happy about having the chance to ask questions. I have never had the chance to get insight into a book(s) that I am reading. Think I am more likely to read other books by you, now that I have had this communication.

An Author that I can communicate with is one that becomes more of a real person to me. I know that sounds strange, but most of the authors that I read don't seem like real people somewhere in my head.

So yeah that is my two cents.
Sep. 25th, 2012 09:56 am (UTC)
That's true -- we become real people -- which of course we are! :)

And being more likely to buy other books -- that's certainly what I hope you'll do! I'd like readers to say, "Wow, that was great! I'm going to go buy all her books and rec them to my friends!" That's the ideal.
Sep. 25th, 2012 03:23 pm (UTC)
So I had this nice reply going and then my cat happened.

Sep. 24th, 2012 09:07 pm (UTC)
Great insights and beautifully put! I never believe writers who say they don't write for readers, only for themselves. Dude, writing for yourself = daydreaming. As soon as you put it _out_ somewhere other than your own mind, it becomes a performance piece. As an aspiring writer myself, one of the things I look forward to most about my dream-future is interacting with my readers, listening to their excitement about something that excites me too, their love for the characters I love and their frustrations with the ones I want them to hate. I also would love to hear the crazy theories about what I'll do next, or the significance of some supposed foreshadowing I hadn't intended. I love the idea of storytelling/writing as a collaborative effort, in which both writer and readers invest love and energy and it makes the story that much bigger and more _real_ for everyone involved.
Sep. 25th, 2012 10:10 am (UTC)
It really is performance. And of course sometimes you get booed! But that's what performing is -- communication.
Sep. 24th, 2012 10:20 pm (UTC)
I'll say that when I got my first fan letter it changed my perception immensely. There are so many authors I loved and idolized in my formative years. I never in a million years would have dared to write to them - they were important people, who wouldn't want to be bothered with hearing from an ordinary person like me. So I read and waited with gnashing teeth for the next book, and did nothing.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago, when after a couple of published stories, I got that first fan letter in my email inbox. It was wonderful. I was on cloud 9. And it suddenly hit me - maybe all those authors I worshiped from afar in high school and college would have felt the same way. Because authors get up and brush their teeth in the morning, just like everyone else, and have bad days that might just be substantially improved by a letter from someone saying simply "Hey, I enjoyed that story."

So, I agree. It's all about making a connection with readers. When you do it's a win for both sides.
Sep. 25th, 2012 10:11 am (UTC)
Oh yes! All those letters I never wrote because it would be an imposition! :)

And yes, it's a win for both sides, even when the feedback is negative. That helps too, actually.
Sep. 25th, 2012 05:57 pm (UTC)
Truthfully, I'm still a little scared to post here. I think I'm still stuck in that 'authors are untouchable' mindset.

I definitely respect anyone who can put a pen to paper (or text on a webpage) and effectively communicate an idea. Communication isn't an easy skill to come by, even though it should be, and to communicate without the benefit of tone and expression is like tying knots without the benefit of using your hands. I know that it's like any other craft - carving, knitting, sewing, whatever - in that you build skill by practicing, but it's still intimidating to show off to someone that you know has been practicing longer than yourself. With writing to an author, the 'showing off' part is pretty much unavoidable.
Sep. 25th, 2012 11:12 pm (UTC)
No, it's not easy, but it's worthwhile! :)

(And it's not like I'm going to judge you by perfect grammar or something....)
Sep. 25th, 2012 06:26 pm (UTC)
I simply loved this and realized that the (sadly) surprising thing is how fresh this seems. The idea that authors should be part of the reader community, instead of above it, is merely re-capturing something lost, not reinventing it.

In my dabbling involvement at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at KU, other young authors and I have be-moaned those "golden days" of SF that you reference and spent quality coffee-shop time brainstorming a new golden era that uses new media to connect readers to the great stuff being written. I'm SO thrilled to see other authors championing communication!
Sep. 25th, 2012 11:13 pm (UTC)
I think communication makes it easier for us, frankly. I find it incredibly frustrating to write something knowing that nobody will read it for three or four years. I can't write that way. (Which is why all my books have pre-readers. I post on a private journal under friendslock as I write, so that I can hear from a manageable number of actual readers while the book is in progress.)
( 20 comments — Leave a comment )