What Do We Owe Our Readers?
In case me talking about it non-stop hasn’t made you check out The Good Place yet, then you should know the title of this entry is a nod to both a book and concept that comes up on the show repeatedly. Shockingly though, I’m not talking about The Good Place today, or at least not primarily, as the genie is already out of that bottle.
Today I wanted to mull over something more existential than tangible: how to create work ethically. What we owe to the reader, versus the story, versus ourselves as creators, and what to do when those duties pull us in opposite directions? As with most things philosophical, there won’t be concrete answers. I can tell you the places I’ve reached currently, but that might not be the same path for you, and even my own position may change as I learn and experience new things.
To the Story
If you’ve met with me in person, especially if we’ve talked about books, you’ve probably heard me use the phrase “story over everything” and while it’s a vast over-simplification of a massive concept, it’s also something I stand behind completely. To me, the story has to be first when working on a project. Everything else flows from there. Nothing is more important; not format, not length, not series viability, none of it matters more than putting the best story you can onto the page.
This has to be my starting point, because everything that follows demands I be proud of the work I’m representing. Every choice about price, marketing, audience outreach; all of that flows from the sincere belief that I’m offering something people will enjoy. They might not, no book is for everyone, but I’d much rather they be put off by my intentional choices than mistakes I was too careless to notice.
It’s the same reason I have my rules for sequels, and why I don’t necessarily do more in a series even when there’s demand. If I can’t elevate the story, then it stays where it is. To do anything less would be a disservice to my audience and own integrity as a writer.
To the Readers
Here, things can get a little sticky, although usually not until one hits the creative side. From a business point of view, this part is reasonably straightforward. Treat them like you would any other person: with respect and consideration. If you say you’ll do something/be somewhere/ have a product up, then you should keep your word whenever possible. By the same token, if something happens to keep you from being able to deliver, be transparent and upfront. Your fans are people too, they understand that sometimes life comes at us all without warning. “Treat them the way you’d want to be treated by an author you like” might sound simplistic, but it has rarely ever steered me wrong.
Where things get more complicated is in the creative field. Sometimes the readers want something specific, more of a certain series is probably the most frequent one in rotation, though occasionally fans will spearhead a certain romance or fight they really want to see happen. Now, by no means should that be dismissed out of hand. Knowing where and when to use fan-service is part of how you control a scene’s tone, and there are incredible works of art that dole it out in the right proportions.
But… ultimately, you don’t owe the readers the version of the story they want. You owe them the best story that you can write. If it happens to line up with what they’re hoping for, that’s great. If not, that’s why stories have twists and turns, people’s minds go different places. Because at the end of the day, only you know the full breadth of what you’re working on, and how each choice will impact the project as a whole. While you should of course listen to your readers, as we said up top, the story comes first.
To the Self
Lastly, and get used to that if you want to work in the arts, we reach the personal stage. This is one where I’ve honestly not done a great job, and started to see the effects last year. If the hierarchy of the list didn’t give it away, this tends to be the last spot in order of importance. Most authors will work longer and later rather than letting a subpar paragraph sit unfixed. We take jobs with sporadic income streams in a shifting market, fully aware of the Uncertain Seas we’re sailing. The frequent response to every author looking to get ahead is “Write more” and while that’s not necessarily incorrect, it’s also dangerous.
Burnout, over-extending, meltdowns, they happen in this industry more than you might think. In light of that, I’ve been working to recontextualize some of this, getting into a headspace where it’s okay to take a rest. If you’re one of the many, many writers who’ll wear themselves to the bone rather than take a day off to recharge, consider this:
One of the primary duties to both story and reader is completion. An unfinished series is a story left untold, a hanging thread to nag at everyone who went down that path. If you intend to deliver on that obligation, it demands you be both physically and mentally healthy for long enough to write those books. An obligation you won’t satisfy by working yourself sick or killing your joy of writing. Even if you can’t make yourself break for your own sake, hopefully you can do it for the consideration of your works and readers.
Past that concern, I’d say the main obligation to self is to be producing work that you’re proud of, which again circles back to the “story over everything” bit from the top. Whatever you write should be a story you want to tell, ideally in a way only you can.