So everybody is a little self-conscious. That is good, that is healthy. Those who are completely unaware of their influence on others are simply unable to empathize with others, and they will be forever lost in their own little bubble of self-obsession and delusion.
And you know what? That’s fine. People can be whatever they like in their personal lives. But in their professional lives, they have to open themselves up to others opinions and critique, otherwise they will go nowhere or even worse lose their position. You have to bend yourself to the whims of the job and the customers: that is almost the very definition of work.
So where does that leave us writers? For those of us that aspire to be professional authors with a zealous fanbase, does that mean that we have to compromise ourselves to cater to others?
It’s a tough question, and one that doesn’t have a right or wrong answer. If we don’t compromise our writing, we may never appeal to anyone but ourselves and never gain any following. But on the other hand if we don’t remain true to ourselves, our lack of authenticity and passion in our writing will seep through in our words, and we could alienate the very fans we were chasing.
So what’s the answer? Well, let’s take a step back here. Let’s remember why we are writing. The first and foremost reason is, I hope, that you enjoy doing so. Yes, there will be days when you feel like you want to throw your pet project out of the window. Even the best parents want to do the same thing at times! It doesn’t mean they don’t love them, and your writing must always have that heart of pure joy beating at its core. Just as readers can smell fakery and boredom in a writer from a mile away, likewise a writer that is clearly enthusiastic about what they talk about will always be engaging.
And that’s the case even when the subject matter could potentially be dull. I would much rather read a novel about cheese-making by an author that loves what they are doing than a novel about space-age adrenaline junkies who BASE jump from spaceships to exotic planets by an author who seems utterly jaded with the idea.
And that’s how every new author should start out: you have to remain true to yourself in the first instance. One of the best pieces of advice I had ever heard was to simply write the book that I had always wanted to read. Don’t be afraid to indulge your own whims a little bit, because you’ve got to let your own sense of fun permeate into your words. Of course, some cold hard editing may trim back some of this, but traces of that fiery passion will always remain. There is a passage in my novel ‘Kami’ where there is a humorous exchange between the two main characters as they hike through a forest. I had a blast writing that, but I had to cut it back a fair bit because it wasn’t pushing the story along. But what remains is still one my best pieces of writing I have done to date. I enjoyed writing it, so I enjoy reading it. And if I enjoy reading it, there will definitely be others out there who will too.
The time to listen to critique will come when you get that critique in the first place. And you really should listen to it. It can be a real eye-opener as well, because after you’ve edited and re-read your novel for the twelfth time, it will cease to be a story any more. It will be like that song on that album you’ve listened so much you barely hear it as music anymore, but more like a tuneful white noise. Your readers can point things out to you that you literally could not see.
Some of the feedback will be a no-brainer. If a lot of people say “I really enjoyed it overall, but the three-chapter-long interpretation of an acid jazz concert was a bit much”, then you may want to curtail the lengthy forays into jazz in the future. Some of it will be contradictory. For ‘Tick’, I have had one person tell me that they loved all the (literal) cat-fighting, and another tell me they thought it was too much. Another reader lapped up the high tension of the opening chapter, another was put right off by it. These very mixed messages nearly pulled me apart, and I began to question my own abilities. Was my writing too confusing? Too divisive? How can some people enjoy this but others can’t?
But in the end, the correct answer was the simplest: it all comes down to taste. You have yours and your readers have theirs. Sometimes it will match perfectly, sometimes it won’t. And that’s fine. Don’t even try to chase down negative response and appeal to absolutely everybody: it’s impossible and if you try then you have begun a race to the bottom to find the lowest common denominator, and your work will smack of desperation.
We should listen to what others say. It helps us grow as writers, to keep us on our toes and help us to get better. You could very well stick to your guns throughout your whole career and cater to only a very small, very dedicated fanbase – there is nothing wrong with that if that is what you want – but you risk stagnating, and who doesn’t enjoy a fresh challenge now and then? And even dedicated readers enjoy being pushed out of their comfort zone: just look at ‘Game of Thrones’, a series that thrives on torturing it’s fans almost as much as the fictional characters within, yet its growth in popularity is exponential.
Writing can be a very solitary experience, but so is reading. We shouldn’t fear our audience nor ignore them, but we should care about and value them, and have one ear open to what they say.