Being a Better Writer: PLS Explain Book

Or, recognizing disparate audience expectations.

Welcome once again writers, to another Monday, and therefore another installment of Being a Better Writer. This week we’ve got an interesting topic for all of you, one that doesn’t get talked about much even inside writing circles, but in my personal opinion should be acknowledged more. In addition, it’s a topic that like our last few seems to be gravitating toward audience, making our recent string of posts discussing such a bit of a trend.

Now, as usual, before we dive into things in earnest, there are a few small news tidbits that we need to talk about. The first is that either today or tomorrow will see a version 1.01 update for Starforge. A few attentive fans have caught a few typos that slipped past our editing team—not out of the ordinary, especially for a 500,000+ word book—that have now been fixed, and we’ll be pushing that fix out ASAP. Anyone who downloads the book to read after that fix goes out will get the tweaked version, while those of you that have already downloaded your copy via a storefront will just need to refresh it. It’s not a lot of fixes, however (about six or seven across the whole book), so that’s why it’s a 1.01 update. But it will be going out soon.

Second, we’re nearing the end of Topic List #21. Which means that in the coming weeks we’ll be hosting a topic call for new Being a Better Writer topics to discuss. So put your thinking caps on and starting thinking about what writing concepts you’d like to hear about that BaBW hasn’t discussed before, or perhaps needs to discuss in a new fashion.

I know, that’s daunting. At this point Being a Better Writer totals some four hundred or so posts. But the world of writing is vast, and we’ve tackled topics a second or even a third time before.

So, there’s a new topic call coming, so if you’ve got a topic you’d like us to cover, jot it down on a slip of paper, or make a note on your phone—whatever it takes so that you’re ready when the topic call arrives!

All right, there’s one more news item to discuss: Life, The Universe, And Everything.

Yes, that capitalized letter on the “and” is intentional. That’s because Life, The Universe, And Everything, or LTUE, is a writing con that is once again upon us!

That’s right, it’s nearly time for LTUE 2023! Once again hordes of writers and other Fantasy/Sci-Fi creators are gearing up to descend en masse to Provo, Utah for a convention that’s all about the creation of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, be that in writing, sculpture, comic, or film.

Seriously, LTUE is awesome. And not just because once again I’ll be paneling (though you should definitely attend those panels if you’re writing). This year the guest lists includes Phil Foglio and Nina Kiriki Hoffman, among others. It’s three days of book signings, panels by authors you know and love on every writing topic under the sun, and more.

Basically, if you like Being a Better Writer, you’ll love LTUE. Check out the site here, and I hope to see you there.

Oh, and if you’re a student of some kind, your entry fee is $5, the cost covered by the sales of LTUE’s excellent collection of anthology short story collections such as A Dragon and Her Girl. So definitely swing on by!

We’d love to see you there. Now, on with the post! And you know what? We’re not going to spend time on the preamble before the jump. So just go ahead and hit that link, and let’s dive into the post proper. See you on the other side!

Okay. So I expect a good number of you, upon seeing the title PLS Explain Book, are just a little curious, confused, or perhaps even concerned about what today’s topic might be covering.

That’s fair. It’s a title I picked because, well, it is attention grabbing. But it’s also very real. It’s the kind of comment your book—or anyone’s book—may attract.

More accurately, it’s the more positive version of this comment. The negative version is more along the lines of “Did not understand book, 0/5 stars,” which is never great to see.

But here’s the thing that we, as writers, have to work out: Are these responses because our book has failed at properly explaining things to our readers? Or are they because the audience didn’t put in the effort?

Hoo boy, I already know that some readers would be pulling out the pitchforks and torches for that last statement. And frankly … yeah. It seems a little … condescending. But it’s not meant to be. It’s simply acknowledging the reality of differing types of audience with regards to how much a book expects its reader to work out.

Let me give you a very recent and real example. A few months ago, the sequel to one of my favorite books dropped. No, I’m not talking about Starforge, though that counts too. No, I’m referring to The Icarus Plot, sequel (twenty-plus years in the making) to Timothy Zahn’s The Icarus Hunt.

I loved the first book. It’s one of my all-time favorite Sci-Fi books, and if you’ve heard me speak at panels (another LTUE plug) or been around on the site for a while, you know that. In fact, those who have read both The Icarus Hunt and Colony will note an immediate similarity in how much both books expect the audience to pay attention and dole out puzzle pieces to solve the mystery. This is because Zahn is the king of misdirection, and I’d be a fool not to learn from his work.

Anyway, twenty-plus years later, a sequel finally dropped. And it was my reward last year for finishing work on Starforge. That’s right, while everyone else was reading Starforge, I sat down with The Icarus Plot and spent a day eagerly devouring the mystery.

Now, I loved it. I had an absolute blast. I paid very close attention, and managed to puzzle out a good number of the book’s mysteries. But a few still surprised me, Zahn’s doling of puzzle pieces skillful as always. For me, it was a one-day read, and an easy Five-star enjoyment.

However, when I went to rate the book on Goodreads, I found a lot of dissenting opinion with that. Why? Because a number of readers had found the mystery too complex, too confusing, and been unable to keep track of all the details … and so they’d given the book a lower score. Some with admissions of “I just couldn’t keep track of everything,” but others with more hostile accusations that the book was poorly written or its mystery lacked internal logic, needing more explanation.

Hence today’s post title. “PLS explain book,” indeed.

See, the problem here isn’t with The Icarus Plot, as some reviews expressed. It’s a problem of audience.

Look, I loved The Icarus Plot, but I’m the kind of reader who enjoys a mystery story where there are (and this is a minor spoiler) five or so different factions each attempting to outwit one another in games of cat-and-mouse, with multiple players working for more than one faction and playing them off against one another.

Me? I adore that kind of mystery. My only regret when I reached the end of the book was that I hadn’t taken notes as to be able to work out a few of the mysteries I missed. However, I still figured out a good portion of what was going on pretty well, and had a blast reading a new “revelation” and wondering “Okay, is this true? Or is this character, who I’m pretty sure is actually working for [blank] telling half-truths, and which half-truths are they?”

Yeah, if you’ve read my UNSEC Space Trilogy or Shadow of an Empire and wondered where I get it from, I fully credit my interwoven mystery puzzle piece writing to Zahn.

But not everyone wants to read that. Or, if I’m honest, is even going to enjoy it, or have the mindset to pay attention to all the little details and note that there’s a discrepancy between what a character said in one scene and then said later in another.

In fact, there are some people for whom such a tactic is an immediate sign that the author has “failed” and messed up, or not had any editors. They lack trust, or in some cases assume that they’re smarter than the author, and see any deviation from that lack of trust or their own supposed deeper understanding a mark that the book is a failure.

And … well, I don’t want to say that these people are wrong. Not entirely. The “smarter than the author” thing is a bit of an issue, but it doesn’t change the plain and simple observation that these readers are not the target audience for this book.

See, that’s the thing: Different books are written for different people. And when someone says “Hey, I didn’t understand/enjoy this” to an author, an immediate deliberation must take place concerning this important question: Did this person not understand or enjoy this because I did not sufficiently or properly explain it? Or because the book is not for them?

And this question, writers, is an titan of a question. Personally, as I see it, this sort of reaction is why knowing one’s audience for a book is one of the most important bits of knowledge that a writer can have, young or old.

Why? Because it’s not uncommon for readers to assume that they are the audience, and the only audience that matters. Worse, such audience members will often fail to draw a line between an actual error, such as a legitimate plot hole or grammatical problems, and their own likes and dislikes with reading. Worse, if that type of audience encounters a new writer who writes something they are not the audience for, this audience’s reaction can be devastating to that writer if they don’t realize the disconnect.

And in a manner that makes things even more difficult for many authors, no division of genre can save writers from running into this quandary. Works can be in the same genre but be aimed at entirely different audiences, which is why a young writer may be completely discouraged when they offer their Epic Fantasy-loving friend their draft only to discover that they didn’t like it at all … Which unbeknownst to either of the parties involved was because the reader was expecting a very different level of exposition and explanation from the book, and the writer was delivering characters who were dishonest or shrouded their motives behind layers.

No joke, I have heard a reader complain before about how the antagonist of a book had said they were doing one thing but then done something completely different. When I replied with “people lie you know,” they were incredibly upset and claimed that having a character tell an untruth in a book was the author dealing dishonestly with readers, and the mark of a bad book.

Oh, and I’ve heard this more than once. In fact, I’ve seen internet discussions concerning this, with whole groups of people stating “How are we supposed to trust the book if any of the characters can just lie whenever they want?” Yes, discussions. More than one. On a book sub, of all places.

Now, are these people wrong? Well … no. And that’s where things for the writer get interesting.

By now most of you were probably wondering “Okay, what’s the takeaway here?” Well, there are a few things to take from it.

First, when someone says that they didn’t like your work, you as a writer need to gauge why they didn’t like it, and whether or not it’s something that is an error or just preference. For example, I recently stumbled upon a book reviewer who had, as one of their self-offered criteria, that they didn’t like character introductions. If we got a paragraph or two telling the reader who they were or offering a little backstory at any point … their review of the book got harsh. They expressed that the characters were a vehicle to the story, and delving into them got in the way of that.

Now, is that wrong? Well, I’d argue no. But for that audience? Clearly it wasn’t the book for them if it was going to spend time on its characters. In addition, any author who had spent time on their characters looking for reviewers would probably be better off looking elsewhere where that reviewer was concerned, because they’d really just be submitting a book the reviewer would already have stated to dislike.

But if that reviewer does stumble across and harshly critique a writer’s book or story for having a focus on character, that doesn’t mean that the author or the editing team did a poor job (I bring up editors because a common cheap shot at books these days is the “clearly didn’t have an editor because of X” statement). It just means that the book wasn’t for them, and that the creator should keep that in mind when reading or addressing such criticism.

But there’s another takeaway here. A very important one. And that is the importance of selecting the right editing team and promoting to the right audience.

Editors are extremely important. No draft is perfect (Sands, some are frankly disasters that end up being little more than proof of concept that the idea worked), and editing teams, from the Alpha Readers all the way to Copy Editors, are a vital step in any book’s existence. However, choosing the right editors is just as important as making the story itself a story worth telling. Because yes, having the correct members on an editing team is vitally important, as you want them to reflect the target audience.

For example, if you’re writing a cozy generation ship story, you don’t want your editor(s) to only prefer grimdark horror Sci-Fi. Unless they can detach themselves from that love, they may end up editing your work as if it is a grimdark horror story … which will have very different pacing and presentation from a cozy.

Naturally, there are editing teams that can make this adjustment mentally. But there are those that may not, or at least would appreciate the heads-up.

This same understanding of audience also applies to any readers you share your work with, whether or not it is for editing purposes. I recall a story I was told once about a student who decided to write this story they had in mind. They wrote out a few chapters, then shared it excitedly with their friends. Their friends however, came back with some stark criticism and “fixes” for the writer to incorporate. Which they did. Then more “fixes” were requested, and more, and more … and eventually they came to the realization that their fantasy story had now become—quite literally—a numbers-filed-off fanfic for the anime this writer’s friends were all obsessed with.

Now, this writer chalked it up as a learning experience, but also noted that the “break off” between them and their friends was a bit hard, because those friends now saw it as “our story you write for us” and had very harsh criticism of said writer when they went back to writing what they wanted to write. Which, if I’m recalling the teller of the tale properly, they did end up selling and making a name for themselves with as a fantasy title.

But their friends told them they were in the wrong when they switched, because they didn’t like what was being written. They weren’t the audience. Fortunately, this writer realized that.

Many other young writers do not. They fail to realize that the “criticism” they’ve received is entirely subjective. They see all criticism as equal, and thus spend their writing time being driven back and forth by criticism that they really shouldn’t be listening to, because it’s all subjective opinion. Sands, sometimes they get caught between two “readers” that both want opposing things, trying to please both endlessly and circling forever with either audience only growing more frustrated.

Or even worse, sometimes they’ll run afoul of a detractor who deliberately plays at being a critic in order to tear someone down. A poor choice of audience indeed.

However, all is not lost. As thousands upon thousands of creators and millions of readers will tell you, there is an audience out there. This is why found in starting advice for a lot of young writers is the adage to identify what books your work is similar too. Not to mimic it or make a copy, but to understand it and acknowledge that there is an audience for it. That way, when a feedback reader or critic says “I don’t think anyone would read this” said writer can nod, accept the criticism has been given, but be safe in the knowledge that a book for the exact same audience was just a bestseller, and so in fact, there is an audience for it.

Know your audience. And take some comfort in it. Not everyone will like your work, but you can rest easy, especially as a novice, in knowing that if you know your audience, the audience is out there.

Even if they haven’t yet discovered your work. For example, I just smile every time I see someone post requesting a cozy fantasy with a well-written young woman protagonist, because I know that one day, either sooner or later, they’ll stumble across Axtara – Banking and Finance and have an absolutely wonderful time. The audience is there, whether or not they’ve found it yet.

That’s the first takeaway here. Writers, if you know what audience you’re aiming for, and know that it exists, you can be confident that what you’re writing is for that audience. Sounds almost self-referential, but it’s not, and it can be a strong source of “I can do this” for a new writer.

But the second is to keep that audience in mind as you write, so that you are writing the story for them. If they don’t want characters that lie, to go back to an earlier example, then don’t write characters that lie to the audience. If they don’t want deep mysteries, then don’t write a deep mystery. If they want popcorn action, then put popcorn action in.

Or don’t, but realize that you’re now writing for a different audience. Maybe it’s a blend of two other audiences, or maybe it’s a familiar well-known one.

But regardless, knowing the audience will have a vast impact on how you present information, characters, and everything else about your work.

Third, that same understanding should go into your editing. Make sure what you’re getting edited is the type of story your editor(s) like(s). That they’re in the audience for it. Because if they aren’t, it’s going to be very difficult to get objective feedback.

Lastly, once the book is out, try to get it in front of readers of the audience that will like it. It’s why when people ask me “What book of yours should I read?” I ask right back “Sci-Fi or Fantasy?” Because that’s a very easy audience break-point that for some is a very hard line.

Whew! And here I thought this was going to be a short post! Oh well. I hope you, as the audience, got something from it.

Just remember: Audience is important, and we should keep in mind who we’re creating a story for. Likewise, we shouldn’t feel distraught when someone who clearly wasn’t the target audience attacks our work over entirely subjective things. Our reaction should be to instead double-down on getting our work in front of the right audience, then take their feedback instead.

Keep the audience in mind.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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One thought on “Being a Better Writer: PLS Explain Book

  1. Illegitimi non carborundum

    Not everybody is Timothy Zahn. Or Robert Sturgeon. Or Heinlein. But they all *started* somewhere and got better until they were. I don’t think there’s a writer out there with thirty or more books who does not look back and wish they could just wave a wand and make one of the first few vanish. That being said, most criticism is… Well, Ratatouille said it best

    “In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little, but enjoy a position…”


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