Oh, I Wanna Talk to You*

Readers and WritersIf you think about it, writing – any sort of writing – is a form of communication between author and reader. And I use the term ‘communication’ very deliberately. Authors plan their stories, put them together, and send them out to readers. Sometimes they have other kinds of messages (social, political, environmental, etc.), but even when they don’t, their stories serve as tools for communication.

But it doesn’t just work in one direction. After all, communication implies that messages are sent, if you will, in both directions. Readers respond to what the author says through book reviews, blog comments and so on. Sometimes they go to conventions and other gatherings where they can meet authors in person. In fact, I know of several blog friends (you know who you are) who’ve reached out to authors for interviews and Q&A opportunities.

This back-and-forth between authors and readers isn’t new. Fans of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes will know that Conan Doyle was quite ready to be done with his creation. He wrote his vision of Holmes’ end in The Adventure of the Final Problem. But that wasn’t what readers wanted. They made it abundantly clear that they wanted more of Holmes, despite Conan Doyle’s feelings about the matter. In the end, he was persuaded to bring his creation back.

Here’s what Agatha Christie’s detective story novelist Ariadne Oliver has to say about the author/reader relationship. In Cards on the Table, she works with Hercule Poirot, Superintendent Battle, and Colonel Race to find out who murdered the very eccentric Mr. Shaitana. At one point, Mrs. Oliver provides some useful information:
 

‘‘You’ve been the goods, Mrs. Oliver,’ he said. ‘You’re a much better detective than that long lanky Laplander of yours.’ 
‘Finn,” corrected Mrs. Oliver. ‘Of course he’s idiotic. But people like him. Good-by.’’
 

And that’s not the only story in which Mrs. Oliver mentions both her frustration with her creation and her acceptance that people want to read about him. It’s said that Christie used Mrs. Oliver’s character as a way of poking fun at herself, and sometimes, of expressing her feelings. It’s also said that she was as fed up with Hercule Poirot as Mrs. Oliver is with her Sven Hjerson, but continued to write about him because that’s what her readers wanted. If that’s true, it’s another example of the ways in which readers make their views known to authors.

With today’s instant global communication, it’s easier than ever for readers and authors to be in contact. I’ve had the distinct pleasure and honour of having several authors whose work I respect comment on this blog and send me emails. It’s very kind of them to take the time to do so, and it’s given me real insights. And it’s not just a matter of blogs. Sites such as Goodreads and Amazon are virtual meeting places for writers and readers. And many authors include options on their websites for contacting them.

In some ways, that can be beneficial for both sides. Readers can feel a connection to an author, and (hopefully!) therefore, a greater connection to that author’s work. And some authors really do pay close attention to what readers say. For example, P.D. Martin’s Coming Home, the sixth in her Sophie Anderson series, was,
 

‘…written with input from anyone who wanted to affect the plot and outcome of a crime fiction novel. Anyone and everyone could vote, watching their plot choices come to life six days later!’
 

It’s a very different approach to writing a novel, and shows how today’s technology can make reader/author communication easier than ever.

Authors can benefit from knowing what makes their work appealing to readers (and what isn’t working). I know several authors who regularly look for patterns in reviews of their work, to see if there’s something that they need to re-consider.

On the other hand, there is the fact that sometimes, authors do nasty things to their characters, even characters whom people like. I think we can all come up with examples of authors who’ve killed off beloved characters (no names – no spoilers). And sometimes, authors take their series in directions we don’t anticipate. Should authors necessarily check with readers before doing such things? Speaking strictly for me, I don’t think so. Of course getting a book published is an ‘ensemble effort,’ in the sense that the wise author pays attention to what others say. Editors, agents, and readers have valuable ideas. So do other authors and those who serve as first readers for a manuscript. Balancing that important input with the author’s own ideas and inspiration is tricky.

What do you think about all of this? Do you contact authors with your input? If you’re an author, how do you stay in contact with what your readers want?

 

And…talking of such things…  Several of you have asked me to add on to some of the short fiction I’ve put up on this blog. That means a lot to me – trust me, more than you know. So I’m going to let you choose which of my stories should be continued. Here are your options:

Giving All Your Clothes to Charity
Clean-Up Time
A Bite to Eat

Check ‘em out if you’ve forgotten them, and then feel free to vote in the poll below. Whichever story gets the most votes when the poll closes (in about a week) gets continued.

 

 

 

 

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Coldplay’s Talk.

40 Comments

Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, P.D. Martin

40 responses to “Oh, I Wanna Talk to You*

  1. It never occurred to me to contact an author with suggestions for “improving” her work, although I have contacted authors to praise their novels (William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace, for example). I do listen carefully to feedback on my own work and look for clues in reviews, but I’ve never asked readers for critiques. Might be an interesting question to put out on Goodreads.

    • You know, it might be, Pat. I think most authors do look at reviews to see what people are saying and what that might mean. But as for more direct feedback, that’s a different matter. And I’m glad you let authors know when you have something nice to say about their books. You know better than anyone what it’s like when you know someone likes what you wrote enough to take the trouble to tell you.

  2. I do sometimes have an internal dialogue with authors: saying ‘why did you do that? Oh no! Don’t!’ etc, but I probably wouldn’t tell them in real life…
    I have placed my vote.

    • Thanks for voting, Moira. And I know what you mean about that internal conversation with authors. I’ve done that, too (e.g. ‘How could you let her/him be killed?!). There is a difference between those conversations and actually speaking to the author, though, as you say.

  3. Ooh, that was a difficult decision, Margot – I think you should just extend them all!

    I’ve never contacted an author but have often been contacted by them, often to thank me for a rave review, but also often as a response to a critical review. It has ranged from the deranged nutcase who tracked down my personal e-mail address to send me screeds of threats and abuse – no, I didn’t remove my review, which I felt had been fair – to authors thanking me and saying they find a thoughtful critical review helpful. If I was an author, I’d hope not to get too hung up on individual critical reviews (or too smug about individual raves) but to, as you say, look for patterns. No book is ever going to be enjoyed by everyone, but if most reviewers are criticising the same aspect, then I reckon that’s probably worth paying attention to.

    • That’s how I see it, FictionFan. One data point isn’t necessarily informative. But a pattern? Yup, something to think about.
       
      You really had someone track down your personal contact information? That in itself must have been upsetting. But abuse, too? Good on you not to take down the review. If it was honest, balanced and informative, as yours always are, then the author has nothing to complain about, even if your review was not really positive. Speaking as a writer, getting negative feedback is tough. But if it’s respectful, honest and not personal, you can learn from it. Threatening the author of such a review is not a professional thing to do, to say the least. I’m glad you’ve also had authors give you personal thanks for positive feedback. We’re not all abusive… 😉
       
      …and thanks for your kind words – and your vote!

      • Yes – the author in question has a track record, so at least I knew it wasn’t only me. The theory is obviously that if s/he scares people enough they’ll take negative reviews down. But I was still surprised – in fact my review hadn’t been a total slate, I think I gave it 3-stars. We had a fairly free and frank exchange of views, and s/he’s never contacted me again… 😉 But actually the vast majority of authors I’ve had any contact from have been lovely!

        • Well, that’s good to know, anyway, FictionFan. So is the fact that this particular author didn’t seem to have it in just for you. At least that person hasn’t contacted you since, and all is over. Still, how annoying! And a 3-star review isn’t a terrible pan. Oh, well, as you say, it’s not all of us who are that way…

  4. Like you Margot I’m not sure letting the readers chose what happens to particular character in a well-loved series but on the other hand I’m intrigued by the group effort to write a book. I’m particularly pleased that you are allowing your readers to make a choice on which short story to continue, however it was a tough choice to make – but I’ve voted!

    • Thank you, Cleo 🙂 – And I was intrigued by Martin’s choice, too. I’ve never tried something like that, but I can see how readers might really get invested in a novel if they’ve had a say in what happens in it. And with today’s technology, it’s not hard to gather an international community of readers for just that purpose.

  5. Col

    Made my selection, though I wouldn’t object to reading a continuation of the others!

  6. mudpuddle

    i voted. wasn’t there a mystery written, some years ago, by a number of writers, cooperatively? maybe it’s been done even more than once; can’t remember reading it, though…

    • Thanks for voting, Mudpuddle. There have been stories that were group-written, and they can be really interesting. Just seeing how the various writers fit it all together is fascinating.

  7. Keishon

    Hi Margot!

    As a reader, I’ve been moved to contact a writer from time to time to gush about a book. The last one was Tana French and she responded a year later but she responded! Wish I kept all the emails from authors I’ve heard back from that you can’t even email anymore– Janet Evanovich and Stephanie Meyer looking at you and that was before both writers became super famous. I remember William Landay writing me back a lengthy email when I contacted him about his book, Mission Flats. Then some writers who disappeared from the face of the earth, I contact them and ask where the heck are you and when is the next book coming out – Clinton McKinzie, great back and forth and his disillusionment with publishing. All of this is to say that some writers truly love talking to readers. I’ve learned from them, too. Not gonna name the writers who never wrote back. Heh.

    Anyway, seriously, I rarely write an author to complain about anything. I hear that complaint from authors all the time. I’m one of those readers who wish the curtain wasn’t close to me to take a peek behind behind the process of what goes into a book. I like the mystery of it. I like keeping my distance so that I can remain true to my feelings about a book. I realize my comment goes a bit into the relationship between readers and bloggers but I’ve seen the changes first hand since I’ve been online since forever. The dynamics/ethics between the author/readers is a complicated one. I think. Sorry to ramble and name drop.

    • I’m in the same camp as Keishon…I’d rather maintain the mystery between reader and author than cosy up to them or feel like I’m in any way part of their process. I’m one of the few avid readers I know who doesn’t like going to writers festivals (and if I do go I sit quietly in the back, listen to the panel/discussion then scurry away)

    • I’m so glad you’ve had such good experiences hearing from authors, Keishon. You were fortunate you had the opportunity to hear from some really well-known authors, too. And you’re right; some authors really do enjoy communicating with readers beyond the content of their books. But as you say, that dynamic can get complicated.

      You make an interesting point about keeping a little distance (not going behind the curtain, that is) from authors. Some readers really want to know about the process of creating a book – what goes on ‘behind the scenes.’ Others, like you, prefer to just let the magic happen, so to speak. I can see why, too. It’s more interesting in a way to just let the author do her or his thing.

  8. Nope. I’ve written to various authors telling them why l liked a book but never to try and influence them. I would find that so irritating!
    I voted.

    • Thanks, Jan 🙂 – And there is definitely a difference between contacting an author to thank her or him for a great book, and contacting that author to ask for a character to be spared, or something else like that. I can see why you’d be irritated if a reader asked you to do that sort of thing.

  9. I can never get past Stephen King’s MISERY when thinking of this subject…now that’s a reader who has taken “feedback” to a whole ‘nother level 🙂 I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite that angry with an author’s plotting decisions though I do remember being really cross with Patrica Cornwell when she brought a dead character back to life after several books – it was as preposterous as it sounds. But I stopped reading her books rather than kidnap her and chop off her feet 🙂

    I’m not one to contact authors – with raves or criticisms – though I suppose it can be argued I do it through the blog. But I have no notion that I’ve any right to give any author my advice on their writing.

    Most of the contact I have received from authors – through blog comments or emails or twitter – has been positive but like Fiction Fan I’ve had a couple of real nutters who can’t even take a lick of criticism. I’m very careful about only saying things about the book (not the person) when I am being critical but some people just can’t cope and demand that anything remotely negative be taken down. I refuse to do that when asked.

    I have seen some really nasty fights break out on blogs and good reads and twiter – where an author has really taken against a bad review and then there’s been a pile on of for and against – I hate those kind of social media storms and try to back away slowly whenever I encounter them.

    • Oh, I don’t like those social media pile-ons, either, Bernadette. They can be really nasty! ugly, can’t they? And I’m sorry to hear you’ve had some bad experiences with authors who got upset like that. I’ve seen your critical reviews, and you’re right; you don’t get personal about them. You simply make it clear what worked and didn’t work. Not that getting criticism is ever fun. Trust me. But authors know that not every books/series/style is for everyone. Most of us learn to deal with it and sometimes even learn from it. That’s especially true when the criticism is balanced and not personal.

      And as for LMisery? Yes, I don’t think I’d want to have that kind of situation happen to me. There is something to be said for not having fans who are that – erm – dedicated and outspoken in their commentary… 😉

  10. Kathy D.

    I voted. I’d like to see all of them continued, actually.
    I have written to authors and gotten replies, a few in Australia, one who is terrific and has a great blog, Angela Savage, and a few in the States, some who blog at Murder is Everywhere, the wonderful Sarah Ward in England.
    I’ve found authors to be very appreciative of our interest. Some others in England, Scotland and Australia are contactable by Twitter, which I did not join, but would be glad to rave about their writings.

    • Thank you, Kathy 🙂 And I”m glad you’ve had such good experiences contacting authors. I agree with you that both Angela Savage and Sarah Ward are lovely people who are very friendly and open to readers. Angela’s partner Andrew Nette is, too, and so are David Whish-Wilso and Brian Stoddart. Oh, and Felicity Young and Sulari Gentill. They’re definitely out there!

  11. Margot, all I can say is that it has been a pleasure knowing so many wonderful authors like you in the blogging world. Over the years I have enjoyed interviewing some of them, who are now my blog friends,

    • Thank you, Prashant. That’s very kind of you. It’s one of the things I really love about blogging: the chance to connect with readers and writers. I’ve learned an incredible amount, and made good friends.

  12. I’ve never contacted an author about I disliked, only what I loved about their books. On Twitter many readers have contacted me to tell me how much they loved my work. It always makes my day. Same with FB. Whenever a reader takes the time to write to me, I’m blown away. Best feeling ever.

  13. It was hard to pick a favorite of the three but I did. Would love to see continue any of them.

  14. As a writer I think essentially you write for yourself first because if you were writing for other people how could you do that given that people have such varied responses. For example I like quite a lot of plausibility in my writing and my reading but other people don’t mind. Jo Nesbo’s – The Snowman I found unbelievable from beginning to end. Well, especially the end but lots of other people loved it. It is so subjective. Do I think Jo Nesbo should pay attention to my criticism? No, not really because he’s obviously got a happy bunch of readers who like his work. Readers and critics can have wildly different responses so where would you start? I listen to my agent and my editors and generally speaking I agree with them. Frankly – after the long slog which is novel writing it’s a relief to have others in the mix. I’m always interested in what readers think about what I write but if you start altering your writing in response where would you stop?

    • You hit on a really important question, Vicky. As you say, readers vary widely in their taste. Even on one dimension (credibility, for instance), readers disagree, sometimes greatly. So if an author tries to include what all readers want, s/he’s not likely to succeed. What’s worse, the book itself is likely to be a sort of mishmash, and not a coherent story. There is good advice to be had from editors and other publishing experts. And the wise author does pay attention to patterns of what readers say. But you’re right; at what point does listening to others go too far? I like your solution of writing primarily the story you want to tell. That’s particularly true for first drafts. The rest – wise advice from others who can be helpful – can come later.

  15. Margot – I have lots of author contact but mostly I have to work through a third party – the publicist. Twitter is a good way to connect directly with authors (unless they employ someone to look after their social media) . Occasionally an author will contact me direct through GoodReads or on the blog or email to ask if I am interested in reading a book or a Q & A etc (mostly indie authors) – and usually they are most welcome as long as I have the time to commit to their book and it is a genre I might enjoy.

    I have only had one negative response to a review I wrote. I understand it must be very difficult for an author to put themselves in the spotlight when they release their work into the world but I think an author must accept or reject or ignore a negative opinion but make no comment or make no effort to contact the reviewer – be bigger than that. It feels spiteful and petty to respond with a personal attack. In this case I will never pick up this author’s work again or recommend or mention his name or his book, even in passing. In fact I have forgotten his but not his nastiness.

    These days if I really feel a book is so badly written I don’t write a review. (It doesnt happen very often) If I think if a book is written well or has some other point of merit but just is not for me – that is a different thing. That is being honest.

    • It’s said, Carol, that Maya Angelou said (or possibly wrote),
       
      ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’
       
      I can understand completely why that author left you with such a bad taste in your mouth. You have a point, too, that authors do need to behave professionally. Yes, they’re going to get negative reviews, and that hurts. Trust me. But no book is for everyone. No author will always delight every reviewer. So there’s bound to be criticism. So long as the reviewer behaves professionally, avoids personal attacks and so on, it’s part of the territory.
       
      You’re right, too, that there’s a difference between a book that’s badly written, and a book that simply isn’t for you. I’ve had that happen, too. I like it that you point those things out when you post, so that readers can make up their own minds.

  16. Hello Margot

    What an interesting discussion! It’s a hard one in some respects. Speaking as a writer I find myself feeling really honoured when a reader takes the time to write to me. I do reply and gladly. I keep every one of those letters and when I’m feeling discouraged or frustrated by the trials of a writer’s life I read them over. Writing is such a solitary occupation that sometimes you need to be reminded that you’re not shouting into the abyss, that the people in your head are making contact with the outside world. I do have many readers who send me plot and story ideas, and requests. Quite often the ideas are a bit idiosyncratic but I am charmed that they’ve taken my characters so much to heart that they’re thinking about them outside the book. Reviews are a bit different of course. I do like to thank a reviewer for the time and the thought they’ve taken in reviewing my books but I’m careful to respect their impartiality and integrity. Though, I must admit when a reviewer really “gets” my work my first impulse is to be their best friend. It’s like the affection you feel for people who are kind to your children. Perhaps the Misery situation is much more likely to happen the other way round! 😉
    That said a bad review can really throw you… Good reviewers criticise the work and not the author but for many authors (myself included) that distinction can become blurred. I remember when I was first published I had two reviews in newspapers come out within days of each other. The first reviewer had based his criticisms on me personally and barely touched on the book. I laughed that off… assuming that he’d not got round to reading the book so, at the last minute, googled me and wrote a criticism of my bio instead (which is the kind of thing I’d do at book club meetings if I hadn’t read the book and didn’t want to admit it). The second review called Rowland Sinclair selfish and stupid. I was much more upset by that review. Anyway, I could rabbit on but I should get back to work… I have been waylaid once again by your excellent blog. Thank you.

    Cheers

    Sulari

    • You’re welcome here any time, Sulari 🙂 – And I do appreciate the kind words about my blog. Thank you, too, for sharing your thoughts on this. I know just exactly what you mean about how good it feels to know that people read your stories, care about the people living in your head, and want to know more. There’s nothing quite like it, is there? As you say, writing is solitary at times, so that reminder that you and your characters matter is a real tonic. I agree with you, too, that it can be hard to find that line, sometimes, between a personal criticism and a criticism of, say, one’s style, or a plot line or something. We do get engaged and invested in our stories. And honestly, I think that’s to the good. Without that personal investment, it’s really hard to tell your character’s stories. You have to really be invested in them. So it’s understandable that it’s tough at times to ‘step back’ when you get a negative review. I will say, though, that I don’t think Rowly is selfish or stupid! And neither does Edna Higgins! So there.

      In all seriousness, though, I think it is great that you respond to your readers as you do. Readers really do like it when they know that authors they admire are also lovely people who return emails and so on. That rapport really makes a difference.

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