Being a Better Writer: Audience and Shifting Reader Culture

Hey everyone, welcome back! I hope you all had a pretty good weekend. Mine was … actually, I don’t think I’ve posted about this on here, but coming up on three weeks ago now at work I twisted my knee. Which is why my posting on here suddenly got really regular. Ever twisted your knee? Well, it’s not fun. It’s not something that requires surgery, nor that makes you completely incapable of using your leg … but it does pretty much prevent you from hobbling more than a few-hundred feet in total (and that brings about swelling and some serious pain). It’s not an injury you can have and at the same time do a job involving lots of walking and other physical activity … which means I’ve had time off from work (time I hopefully get paid for under workman’s comp since it was an injury from work; but we’ll see on that angle). So I’ve been doing a lot of writing.

Anyway, that’s a long, roundabout way of putting context to saying that my weekend was pretty good. I hit my monthly quota early (surprise surprise, right?) and, by combining two months of quota rewards (each time I meet a monthly quota I spend $5 on myself), picked up Hollow Knight. It’s a game, not a book. Fantastic game so far, though. It’s a brilliantly-conceived little world, with a lot of charm and wonderful art direction. Blended with fantastic design. A someone who loves the Metroid games, Hollow Knight is going right up there with Shadow Complex.

Okay, okay, you’re not hear to read about games … though I’ll admit I’m a bit tempted to do a piece on Hollow Knight‘s particular style of storytelling, as well as a few other games that do similar, and how it’s influenced my own. But … that’s for another time. No, now I need to get down to business on today’s topic.

I’ll give you a warning, though: It’s probably going to be a shorter one. Why? Well … because last week’s was titanic, in part. And because Jungle is finally starting to get to the exciting bits (for me, at least) where things start coming together! So I’m a bit excited to get to be working on that.

So, today’s topic is a bit of a weird one … Weird enough that I just wiped 700 words on it out of existence because it didn’t feel on point enough. Today, I want to talk about audience. Well, not just audience, but also the shifting culture that audience brings.

Confused? It’s a bit weird. So let me give you an example from this year’s LTUE.

While I was at LTUE, I spoke with a horror author, and one of the things we discussed (which also came up during her panel) is how the horror market is adapting to the changes in what readers expect. One of the things that this author mentioned was that, while growing up in a steady diet of video games, which included classic horror games such as Resident Evil, had given her a love of horror that she’d taken forward into her books … it had also caused her to demand more from those same stories—something she’d noticed from her readers and other authors of the genre as well. In other words, a lot of the old tropes of horror. the classic bits like splitting up and going alone, or heading into the dark room without fear of something waiting in the dark, are kind of … played out. You can still write stories that use these tropes, but a large part of the up-and-coming reading audience, the ones who also grew up on games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill,  finds those tropes doing a disservice to story rather than aiding the sense of fear.

Basically, as I discussed with them later, the audience’s culture has changed. A horror book that could do quite well in the 90s would no longer find the same reception today because the reading audience has differing interests. The key point this author brought up was that in her experience writing and selling horror books, the new generation of readers wanted intelligent horror, with intelligent protagonists who don’t make foolish mistakes. Unlike the days of ten-twenty years ago, where a protagonist could blunder around like a child in the dark, the modern cut of readers wants a character who shows more foresight and thought.

Okay, that’s one example of what I’m talking about. Let me pull out another, so we don’t get bogged down in thinking this is about the horror genre when its not. Let’s look at fantasy. Specifically, fantasy universes that use magic systems.

Do you know what a magic system is? Well, then you’re an example in how reading culture can change. Magic systems, by and large, really didn’t start to be a thing until a little over a decade ago. They’re relatively new.

Okay, well, they’re not “new,” but the amount of attention and focus on them certainly is. As well as the frequency with which they arrive. Go back twenty, thirty years, however, and a magic system was something relatively rare … or at least, confined to specific genre fiction, like books set in the Dungeons and Dragons universe, where magic came with rules (but even those were nebulous at best).

Now? Magic is a “science” in many books. It’s still fantastical, and it may not be treated like a science, but there are clear rules about what it can and can’t do, what it’s capable of, or what has to be “spent” in order to utilize it. And the more nebulous magic “systems,” the ones that come with vague instructions, or are more unknown and mysterious? Well, they’ve fallen by the wayside, relegated to other genres (Paranormal Fantasy) or just plain being less common in the genre they once dominated.

So what happened? Well, reader culture changed. What people wanted shifted. And continues to shift. And always will continue to. That’s kind of how culture works—it’s kind of fluid.

So, where does this leave you? Why am I bringing this up? Because as writers and authors, we want to have an audience. But if we don’t pay attention to how the winds of reader’s expectations shift, we can find ourselves scrabbling to make a sale—and we do that enough already. We don’t want to make it harder.

Now, does the current fascination with magic systems mean that you can’t write a fantasy book that doesn’t have one? Or the draw of intelligent horror mean that you can’t write a classic, 80s-style horror story? Of course not? You still can, and there’s still a market for that. After all, I found a post on Reddit’s r/books’ forum this morning ripping into one of the authors who kicked off the magic system style en mass, because they despised magic systems. So there’s always going to be some audience out there somewhere for something. Add to it that there are plenty of people who enjoy magic systems who will still likely enjoy a book without one, especially if it’s well written. After all, The Lord of the Rings does not have much in the way of a magic system … and it’s written in a style that’s decidedly very not-modern … yet it still sells in massive numbers and is beloved by fantasy readers of all ages around the world. A good book is still a good book.

However, The Lord of the Rings also has decades of reputation behind it. A new book won’t … and that makes it a bit of a risk to try and go against the grain.

Once you look, the sort of cultural “movements” are easy to spot. Right now among ebooks, short serials (we’re talking 50-80 pages), which were incredibly popular at one point among ebook readers, seem to be falling off. When the Kindle and other e-readers launched, such serials were major cash cows for authors, but currently it seems as though the public is starting to tire of them, instead changing their interest over to slightly longer “short novels” of 150-200 pages. At least, this is what I gather from reading up people’s comments online about what they’re buying electronically and looking at what’s selling. But I’ll admit my information isn’t perfect.

Also, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t other successful lengths of ebook, or that I’m changing what I write to run the current “demand.” Because I like what I write, and I’d rather stick with epics than switch to what may be a current trend of ebooks.

And with that in mind, what’s the takeaway from this? The point of these posts, after all, is to help you be a better writer, correct? Some of you, at this point, might be wondering how this could help your writing. Well, my answer is this: It can help it … or it can hurt it. It’s kind of up to you.

Let’s go back to the horror example above. This was a real-life example. The author I spoke to was indeed a real person, and had a number of successful horror books under her belt … but one thing she contributed to them being the successes that they were was the fact that her protagonists were intelligent people who didn’t make the same mistakes old protagonists did.

Personally, in my mind, this makes for better horror. And her readers would seem to agree. Did she have to go that route? No, not at all, but she’s lucky enough to have found an emerging audience for what she wanted to write and capitalized on it.

In a similar way, being aware of what people are looking for, or what they consider a “good book” can be beneficial to your writing. Because while individually tastes may differ, as a whole, this author could pinpoint what her readers wanted and what they found good, and could make sure that those elements in her books were standout. Even knowing that an audience thrived on intelligent protagonists who make smart decisions could be a great inspiration for the direction of the next project. Likewise, if you know what an audience is looking for, especially if it’s somewhat new, you might find a new direction or focus for your own work that will increase its appeal to that crowd … even if it isn’t exactly what they’re looking for. Writing a different genre? You still might be able to encourage cross-pollination by looking at what other audiences are interested in and making sure your title doesn’t commit any major sins in that area. For example, I don’t write for gun nuts … but at the same time I make sure that I do give the guns in my stories a full measure of attention so that when a gun nut does read my book, they don’t cast it aside for getting basic elements wrong.

There are other reasons to keep an eye on the shifting interests and attitudes of readers as well. They might influence you to market your book (story, serial, whatever) in different ways, or at a new audience entirely. Or they might help draw attention to an area of your work that could use touching up. Or maybe even a subplot or side-story that’s a bit cliche that’s currently out of favor.

One thing I don’t want you to take away from this, though, is any sort of mistake idea that you must only write what the public wants. That’s not true at all. After all, no one “knew” the public wanted magic systems until someone pushed their own out onto the market and started getting attention. Never assume that just because “the public,” or even worse, one person, wants something, that it means you should always tailor your work to order. Don’t do that.

Instead, watch the public sphere. Keep an eye on it, just so you have a good idea of what the perception of your work might be. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some ideas and pointers on maybe where you can tweak your story to be a little better , or even appeal to a wider audience than you initially thought. Or, if you’re spotting a cultural shift  in things … get on it! You might be the one to ride the wave of interest into something bigger and grander!

And .., I really don’t have much more to say on this. Just, as a writer, keep a faint note of interest pinned on the public culture of reading. If nothing else, it will give you an idea of what’s currently working for authors out there, and what isn’t, which in turn may prod you to adjust your own writing somewhat, or at least warn you that what you’re working on is about to become a hard sell.

That’s it, really. Just keep an eye on what readers are up to, and what they expect.

Don’t worrry. Next week, we’ll be back to something a bit more concrete and normal for BaBW. But until then …

Good luck. Now get writing.



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