by David Ellis
I once told an audience that I would write stories for the rest of my life, even if I stopped being published. I have heard others make similar claims. It’s in our blood. It’s all we know. That kind of thing. But is it true? Would I really write an entire story even if I was absolutely sure that nobody else would read it? Would you?
Writing is in some ways an inherently isolated experience. You sit at a computer or with a note pad and you ply your craft. But we’re not writing solely for ourselves. We’re writing for our readers. So we make compromises at every turn. We don’t just write what we want to write. We write what we want to write but with this one gigantic qualifier—it has to be something other people want to read, too. You can’t be a good published author unless you’re a published author in the first place, no?
Someone with whom I used to work, who was accustomed to doing battles with me on the commercial viability of certain content in my novels, once told me, “Wait until you’re at Sanford’s level. Then you can write what you want.” I understood what she meant, of course, but it raised an important question. Was I writing just because it was a pretty cool and potentially lucrative way to make a living? Was I writing my earlier novels just to live for the day when I was so popular that I could “write what I want?” There's nothing wrong with either answer. But that doesn't mean it's not an interesting question.
Ultimately, I think what most of us are doing is choosing to write because we enjoy it more often than we don’t. More often than not, we get our way, and that’s good enough. More often than not, we are writing what we want to write, and then we make trade-offs, compromises, so that our books will be popular as well. We lighten up the darkness in our main character so he or she will be more “mainstream.” We take out the racial epithets because, even though it’s perfectly consistent with the character to utter them, those words are too bombastic, even in fiction. We make our characters politically correct. Every author has had those battles with agents and editors in this regard. Or we avoid that talk by self-editing as we write, which is the same thing. Either way, we’re avoiding that which will make readers object, maybe boycott future books. Maybe our publishers will drop us.
And maybe I have the premise wrong. Maybe we are writing for the reader in the first place. What’s the famous tip about writing? “Leave out the part that readers skip.” That advice suggests that we’re doing this for the reader all along. When an author pitches a main character to me—a smart, sexy private eye; a crusading attorney; a gun-for-hire with a heart of gold—it’s hard to imagine that the author hasn’t crafted that character in large part with an eye toward commercial popularity.
So maybe we’re just entertainers and nothing more. We enjoy the interactive nature of giving people a small piece of enjoyment. We provoke them, we scare them, we make them laugh, whatever. Hey, it’s icing on the cake if we also get some personal fulfillment out of this, but it’s all about the reader when all is said and done.
I think about this because I have a second career in the law, and I sometimes wonder about my priorities and why certain things are important to me. And I often wonder whether I should make a certain compromise on a character or subject matter in a book. Even for those of you who are full-time writers, life is full of choices, and I think this is an interesting exercise.
I’m interested in any thoughts.