Friday, November 8, 2013

Author Expectations and Reader Reactions

This ramble is even more rambley than usual; just a heads-up to any of you expecting my usual hyper-coherence (pah).  But I was discussing the occasional (okay, frequent) dissonance between how authors view their body of work, and how their readers do, and there were a few things I wanted to say about that as regards fanfiction.  My thoughts, below the break.


It should not be news to anyone that the correlation between how much effort an author expends on something and how well it's received is a tenuous one.  Stories which were scrambled off in half an hour can easily become famous, while would-be magnum opuses by the same author are ignored.  And this isn't (always) just a result of fickle or unpredictable readership, either; it's in no way uncommon for critics, amateur and professional alike, to have significantly different views about the relative quality of a writer's oeuvre than the writer does.

This applies at the scene level, as well.  To use one of my stories as an example: the single most-quoted and, apparently, most popular part of Going Up is this bit, where Derpy asks Carrot Top how much she weighs:
Caught totally off-guard, Carrot Top sputtered, then named a number. 
Derpy gave her a very critical look. 
Carrot Top looked down, then quietly muttered a slightly larger number.
Now, if you had asked me what I expected to be funniest and/or most quotable lines in that story, I would have named at least a dozen before I got to that one.  It truly never occurred to me that it would be a highlight of the piece for many readers.  In fact, I personally think that the paragraphs on either side of that exchange are rather funnier... but that would seem to put me in the minority.

And that's fine.  If most of my readers latched onto a different scene than I expected them to, that's not a big deal.  I'm just happy they enjoyed what I wrote.  And I think that most authors have a similar reaction in cases like this.  The same is true at the story level: while I wouldn't necessarily call my most popular stories my best ones (though, lest anyone think I'm complaining, I don't feel like any of my stories have been particularly under-appreciated), I'm just pleased that people are reading my stories at all.  And again, I think most authors have the same reaction.

There are some problems which are related this kind of author/reader dissonance that definitely are problems: when an author finds that readers have pigeonholed him or her based on the popularity of a single work (e.g. readers getting annoyed with a "shipping author" who tries to write a horror story, complaining for no other reason than because the fic doesn't end with two characters making out), for example.  But when we're talking solely about readers liking the "wrong" story (or liking the "wrong parts" of a story, or liking a story for the "wrong reasons"), and not any of the ancillary problems which can sometimes result from that, I think it behooves authors to give them the benefit of the doubt.  If a bunch of readers respond unexpectedly, or unexpectedly strongly, to something you've written... well, who's to say they're wrong?

I still don't think the weight gag is anything to write home about, personally--and it's certainly not a scene I spent any time or especial energy on--but I'm not about to tell any readers who think it is that they're wrong.

20 comments:

  1. It's a good line. Maybe not the best scene in the story, but certainly one of many that make that story good. :)

    I don't think readers will ever like our favorite stories as much as we do, but so long as people DO like them, that's okay. I'd rather disagree with someone on what the best part of a story is than what the best story is anyway.

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  2. I almost always get a different reaction to my stories than I expect I will. There were only two stories I thought would be popular and ended up so. There were a couple that I figured would only appeal to a niche audience, but got a rather good readership. And several I thought would have wide appeal but were fairly ignored. And all of that is fine.

    Writing is an intensely personal experience, and you naturally have the strongest connection to the stories that have the most personal investments. Maybe they're mirrors of experiences you had or just plays on emotional states that you've keenly felt. In the end, for a reader to feel that same connection, he has to have a similar experience base or mindset, or by chance has a completely unrelated reason for relating to the story. And frankly, either one of those is a complete shot in the dark. If you write about a very common and general situation, like the death of a grandparent, it's not hard for readers to identify with the situation, but as they say, the devil is in the details. The nuances of how your characters react to that are really what resonate with your audience. You get a base level of enjoyment for investing the time and energy into making your story play out in a heartfelt and authentic manner, but that final step of hitting just the right note with a reader? There's a lot of luck involved.

    If I like my own stories that way—I've articulated the fine points of my emotional response to what's happening in the story accurately enough that I recreate the same feeling on a later read-through—then that's enough for me, and there will certainly be readers who do as well. (Insert caveat about writing quality; how it's delivered is as important as the message itself, after all.) I suspect I find myself very much in the minority here, but I rather like re-reading my own stories. Most of them, anyway. Not that I don't find flaws in them and occasionally try to correct them, but I enjoy finding that emotional investment in the premise again that prompted me to spend a not-insignificant amount of time expressing the idea in the first place.

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    1. I rather like re-reading my own stories.

      I re-read my stuff, too:

      That's the main reason I started writing back in high school three decades ago, after all: I couldn't find enough stories out there that I liked reading. :)

      That's also why it's such a pleasant surprise to find that anyone else likes my stuff. When the little pictures that dance in my brain turn out to inspire dancing in other people's brains, well, that's just about as wonderful a thing as there is. But it always takes me by surprise.

      Mike

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    2. I'm glad I'm not the only one who enjoys rereading their stuff. I have a tendency to laugh uproariously at my own random comedies and feel bad about doing so. Maybe it's the pinnacle of writing for oneself? At least it's good to get a reaction out of myself that isn't cringing embarrassment.

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  3. Realizing that your readers are going to react differently to what you write than what you had intended is one of the hardest things a writer has to get used to. (Most) readers aren't psychic and can't channel your exact thoughts; all they can do is bring in their own biases, life experiences, and opinions/feelings on what the story is saying.

    Just to relate to myself (because I'm a self-centered bastard), My Little Alicorn had a lot of reactions I really wasn't expecting. The intention was for both sisters to ultimately be at fault for how badly things had gotten, as well as for the events that unfolded over the course of the story itself. But as you pointed out in your review, Luna's behavior came off as being absolutely monstrous, which would then undermine the message. And that's a perfectly fine interpretation.

    The way I see it, you shouldn't focus too much on what reaction you want readers to have (that's where morals and aesops run the risk of being overwrought). Just write what you want, have some fun, and hope they ultimately enjoy it. And don't worry too much about what's popular and what isn't. Many of the stories that made huge splashes are almost completely forgotten these days, while the truly good ones remain in people's minds.

    Just sit back, relax, and have fun making Sunset Shimmer immolate herself.

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  5. Apparently I don't know how the italics work on this blog site...

    I really struggled with the disconnect after releasing the majority of "Taking a Job for Granite". I feel like it's a much better than "Diary of a Silent Tyrant" or "Checkmates", but for a story that has been on EQD several times and features Trixie, it's largely been ignored. That did annoy me quite a bit as I watched the views and upvotes for "Checkmates" keep tallying up, but what can you do? Eventually, I just learned to shrug and keep on going for those people that have enjoyed it, but I'll admit that my enthusiasm for finishing that story is not as strong as it ought to be, and that's my own fault. I spent maybe three hours on "Checkmates" and people loved it. I spent months on "Taking a Job for Granite" and I assumed people would love it proportionally more. I went in with an expectation, and it bit me in the ass. It was a good lesson for me, and I'm approaching my new story differently because of it.

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    1. Thanks, Present. The fact that that didn't occur to me shows me just how much the effects of lack of sleep have impacted me today.

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  6. Differing reader interpretations are wonderful things if you ask me. Sure, it can get frustrating for an author when what you think are your better works are ignored (this has happened to me too), but readers having such contrasting opinions on your work can shed a lot of insight into how it's viewed from an outside perspective. I think I've really grown as a writer by watching my commenters' unexpected reactions to a story.

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  7. I think the most interesting thing I've found from readers is a completely different interpretation than what I had in mind... and it always amuses me

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  8. It's a good line, and I remember smiling when I read it. Would read better without the adjectives, though. Bad Chris!

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    1. "Would read better without the adjectives, though."

      Caught totally, Carrot Top sputtered, then named number.

      Derpy gave her very look.

      Carrot Top looked down, then quietly muttered slightly number.


      I don't know about you, but that reads way worse.

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    2. Probably meant adverbs. For example, is there any way to mutter something other than quietly?

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    3. I suspected he was, I just wanted to have some fun. Having said that,

      Caught off-guard, Carrot Top sputtered, then named a number.

      Derpy gave her a critical look.

      Carrot Top looked, then muttered a larger number.


      Is still worse than the original for me. Adverbial usage at the end of the day, is often a matter of preference and sometimes heavy use of descriptive words is actually the right approach for a story.

      As for other ways to mutter something, well there's softly, quickly, reluctantly, instinctually, cheerfullily, carefully, darkly, and plenty of others. Albeit, I do agree that in this case, it is redundant.

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    4. I liked that first one, because wow

      so mutter

      very look

      such number

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  9. Heh, similar experience with My Little Pony's Little Ponies; among all the carefully-constructed setups and references, one throwaway line -- "Scootaloo had been picked up by her parents, a fine upstanding pegasus couple with respectable jobs and no major personality disorders." -- has gotten more comments and mentions elsewhere than anything else in the story.

    So it goes, I s'pose.

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    1. That will happen when you throw out something that might be considered a reference to a lot of other fanworks which do portray Scootaloo's parents as either absent or less than respectable.

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  10. What I truly hate is when these expectations are based on things meta to the body of work itself. I have had many arguments with fans who are disappointed that the Lyra in a certain fic does not reference humans or authors who feel the need to only use the Winningverse personality for Cloud Kicker.

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