Recently I engaged in a disagreement with a bestselling writer who is also a mentor of sorts.
The disagreement had to do with whether, when a reader is ejected from a story because of a fake detail or other inanity, that is the result of the reader’s taste. I argued that it’s the fault of the writer.
I do understand my mentor’s point. If something simply isn’t to your taste as a reader, there’s nothing the writer can do about that. After all, how can the writer account for the taste of every reader?
So should the writer strive for perfection? Of course not. Especially in writing, perfection really, seriously doesn’t exist.
But the writer should srive for improvement of his or her own abilities in the writing and storytelling craft.
Writing is nothing more than communication. For just one example, if you use a lot of extraneous commas in your work, you will run off fewer readers if you learn (with your conscious, critical mind) how to use them to direct the reader in the reading of your work.
Then when you understand that use, your subconscious creative mind will apply commas in a way that will run off fewer readers. Your stories will resonate more clearly and attract more readers.
Of course the same thing goes for word choice, sentence length, paragraph and chapter length, pacing, and so on.
You learn what you need with the conscious, critical mind. Then you apply it with the creative subconscious as you write.
I think of it as a kind of naturalization, in that once you learn and understand a concept, you will apply it “naturally,” meaning without giving it a first thought.
And we know that is possible. It’s why you put a period at the end of a sentence without having to think about it. It’s why when writing by hand we “naturally” or automatically cross the lower-case T and put a dot above the lower-case I.
The use of punctuation, sentence length and all the rest is just as natural or automatic once we’ve learned it and understand it.
In the spirit of full disclosure for those of you who are following the exchange between my mentor and me, when I read something by a bestselling writer that pretty much sucks canal water from all 50 states, the main reason it annoys me personally is because I know my own stories are so much better.
In his initial response to me, my mentor wrote in part, “…you are asking a lot of that bestseller to always write a book you love, and not make some choice you do not like. Sort of a large ego there, don’t you think?”
But that was a misunderstanding of my intent, or maybe a misreading of what I wrote.
I don’t expect any writer, even a bestseller, to “always write a book I love.” I only expect him not to use fake details that throw me out of the story after I’ve already suspended my sense of disbelief and spent money for his book. As a reader, I should be able to expect that level of care for the craft.
To me, the large ego is the one the writer engages when he marks up my unintentional notice of his bad writing to a matter of my personal taste rather than to room for improvement in his ability.
As an aside, I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t like works by Ray Bradbury or Raymond Chandler. Just sayin’.
Just always remember one thing: The reader doesn’t need you or me.
There are millions of writers out there from whom the reader may choose. We, on the other hand, need every reader we can get.
We can’t afford, figuratively or monetarily, to run off even one that we could have retained by the simple application of correct details in our writing.
‘Til next time, happy learning and happy writing!
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10 thoughts on “On Readers’ “Taste” and Writers’ Ability”
I think that’s a more complicated issue than it sounds like and goes right back to personal taste. Writers can’t control the personal taste of readers. If the writer added more detail to what you determine a fake detail is, I might find that it interrupts the pacing. Another reader doesn’t notice it and still another gets kicked out of the story because of it. I think it’s the hardest things for writers to understand that the reader is simply reading as a reader. Most of the time they don’t care. I think one fake detail in a book that has a lot of depth is not a deal-breaker. But a book that has no depth and a lot of fake details–or for that matter, none at all, is probably not going to entice readers into turning the page.
I agree, Linda, up to a point. But IMHO, a best-selling writer should know how to add depth and should strive to balance the other details. If s/he can’t pull me into the story in the first place, that isn’t a matter of my taste. It’s a matter of writer skill.
Which is why I’ve spent a ton of money and time learning how to craft a story that pulls the reader in.
But let’s go the other way and say every flaw in a book is owing to reader taste instead of the writer’s lack of ability.
If every flaw in a book can be attributed to reader taste rather than a lack of writer knowledge, why bother learning the craft at all? Why bother spending hundred or thousands of dollars on workshops and seminars when we can mark up everything to reader taste?
To go a step further, if my manuscdript is chock full of wrong words (waste for waist) and typos and misspellings, can I just mark up reader dissatisfaction to “reader taste”? Some writers can, maybe, but I can’t. That would just be silly.
Again, the ones with whom I have issues are not beginning writers, but bestsellers. In my opinion, they should have mastered the craft to which we all aspire.
Reader taste is a different animal. In my own novels, I’ve had some readers tell me they skim over some of my descriptions (because they feel there’s too much) and other readers who say they feel they’re in the story with the characters. Now that is reader taste.
I agree with you completely, Harv.
Every fiction writer should aspire to the keen ability to suspend disbelief. Every. Fiction. Writer.
I hope a bit of a different perspective is okay?
I used to be in a critique group. I took pride in the fact that I was so good at story… and catching nitpicky little things that others didn’t see. They did the same for me and we “fixed” each others stories.
Anyway, I had a couple of experiences that soured me on critiquing. I rewrote the ending of a book based on trusted advice, but not in time for the pre-order. So, 90+ readers got the original version. Hundreds more readers got the new and improved version. Guess what? Reviews were the same. No one cared that I “fixed” the ending and made it “better.” It didn’t matter. It was only personal preference.
Another time I read a friend’s book and thought… no, no, no! She should have done this, that, and the other. I went to read her reviews to see what her fans thought and, guess what? They loved it as it was written. Ego, indeed. Heh.
Not long after this, I stopped reading reviews. (Haha)
Now when I find myself “catching” things, even homophones, or typos, or flat out “what the?” moments I move on and enjoy the story. Or not…based on the story.
Absolutely Was it Mark Twain who said no urge on Earth is greater than the urge of one writer to change another’s work? 🙂 I ask first readers to point out typos, wrong words, and inconsistencies. That’s it. When one tells me how s/he recommends I write something, I don’t send that reader anything anymore.
I, for one, really don’t like Ray Bradbury. I’ve read tons of his short stories and they were ok (beyond the “science” in his science fiction), but I gave up him when it took me a week to get through “Something Wicked This Way Comes”. eesh. Just tedious. That was a story that was much better in its film incarnation.
You’re the first I’ve heard say that. 🙂 Well, that would go to reader taste, eh?
I’m with you, Gai. I don’t particularly care for Bradbury.
And yet to me “There Will Come Soft Rains” is one of the greatest short stories ever written. 🙂 “The Playground” is another excellent story. And FWIW, Bradbury himself said his stories are not about “science.” They’re about how human beings react to situations, whether or not science is involved.
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