Under the Influence
I was recently asked in an interview about reader influence, and I thought it was such a great question that I’d use it as my topic today for BookWenches. It’s on my mind because a few days ago I finished The Dark Tide, which is the fifth and final book in the Adrien English series.
If you’re not familiar with the series, it’s about a gay
I wrote the first book, Fatal Shadows, back in 1998. I was living on my own then -- broke, a little lonely and a little bit of a smart ass -- and I didn’t tell anyone what I was doing. Don’t get me wrong, I had been writing semi-professionally for years, but I’d never written anything that meant so much to me. No one influenced me -- no one knew about it -- even commonsense didn’t influence me. Even when publishers rejected the book and said Adrien needed to be more flamboyant and he couldn’t have a heart condition and nobody wanted to read about mystery writers or booksellers…I paid zero attention. I rewrote it, but I kept in all the stuff the publishers hated -- because it was all the stuff I loved. I was writing the book first and foremost for myself.
Fatal Shadows finally sold to a small, now defunct indie publisher called The Gay Men’s Press. They bought the second book too. I ended up having to publish the third book myself. All the while I was contentedly writing these books in a vacuum. The publisher occasionally sent me a magazine clipping, and I read a few reviews on Amazon, but I had virtually no contact with readers. I didn’t think a lot about them -- other than to be surprised by how many readers apparently remembered the series and loved it.
By the time the fourth book was released, I had found two new publishers and I had begun to interact closely with readers. I had begun to be influenced by readers.
Most writers usually deny being influenced by readers, but I think they’re probably kidding themselves. If you want to sell books, you’re influenced, at least to some extent, by readers. We write for ourselves, but we publish for others. A successful publishing career is about learning to balance what you want to write with what people want to read. That usually entails listening to readers -- this is called identifying your audience.
I’m not saying that a writer needs to slavishly follow market trends, but it helps to be aware of them. It’s clear from Fatal Shadows that you can ignore the wisdom of publishers and agents and still succeed, but as popular within this small genre as the AE series is, it’s hardly the stuff of New York Times Bestsellers. Had I heeded the advice I’d been given, perhaps it would be more popular. Or perhaps it would be less.
That’s where learning to balance comes in.
By the fourth book, Death of a Pirate King, I was hearing quite a bit from readers about what they wanted and didn’t want, and it did influence me. Now, I don’t mean I changed the course of the book to suit readers. The story and character arcs were planned out all the way through the fifth book way in advance as anyone who goes back and reads Fatal Shadows will see. But for the first time I was conscious that a lot of people were reading and were hoping for certain things.
On the one hand, that made Death of a Pirate King a very easy book to write because I knew it was going to give the vast majority of readers exactly what they wanted. But I did throw in some things. Through the years they had suggested various ideas: Could Adrien have a cat? Could I bring back Angus? Could Adrien meet Kate? These weren’t planned out in advance, I threw them in to amuse myself and indulge my readers. They made for better stories in my opinion, or I wouldn’t have done them, obviously.
(No writer should ever go against his own best instinct, by the way -- I’m not advocating that. The problem is when you’re starting out it’s hard to tell if you’ve got good instincts or bad. That’s where consensus of opinion can be a useful thing)
So I finished DoaPK and I felt like I’d pretty much completed what I set out to do. There was still one more -- well, if I want to be strictly honest -- two more mysteries I’d laid the groundwork for, but I felt that I had already completed the character and romantic arc, and I knew that was the main interest for readers. I decided that I probably would not do the fifth book. It didn’t seem necessary since I had answered the main question in everyone’s mind -- and I really wanted to end the series on a high note.
And here is where I allowed readers to influence me. Readers asked very strongly for this fifth book, The Dark Tide. Readers wanted to see what happened next. And they were very convincing -- not merely about how much they wanted this book, but in finding logical reasons for me to write this final chapter. As I listened to them debating amongst themselves in various discussions, I began to see that there was still enough to explore within the characters and their relationship, that I wouldn’t merely be indulging my love of these stories, that there was more here -- and that I could still go out on a high note.
In short, I let my readers talk me into it.
That reader expectation influenced me this time as no other. Because I had to go back and verify many things in the first books, I couldn’t help but compare how different it was to write knowing so many readers were eagerly awaiting The Dark Tide as compared to Fatal Shadows which I wrote uncertain as to whether I’d let anyone ever see it. It gave the work a special poignancy. It was as though I had company as I was typing along like a lunatic at two and three in the morning.
And I felt nervous and worried as I had never felt before writing this series. It’s the last book and I want it to be good -- I want readers to go away satisfied and feeling it was all worth it. That’s a lot of pressure -- especially at in the morning.
Did I succeed? Time will tell.
Am I influenced by readers? Yes? But I believe it’s in much the same way people talk about hypnotism -- even under the influence you only do the things you already want to do.
Josh Lanyon is the author of the Adrien English series of mysteries as well as many other works available through Loose Id, MLR Press, Samhain Publishing, Aspen Mountain Press, and Liquid Silver Books. To find out more about Josh Lanyon and his work, please visit his website at http://www.joshlanyon.com/ and his Live Journal site.