Writers like to brag about being solitary creatures, unless that is they’re humble-bragging about attending conventions and sitting on panels being apparently over-awed but also somehow sneakily wise. They also join more societies, groups, workshops and drinking circles than they like to admit. For one thing, these are excellent displacement activities, especially because they’re filled with other writers doing exactly the same thing. But they also provide what most writers secretly need, which is company they can share their frustrations with. Not getting published; not getting any money; not getting recognition; not getting any writing done—whoops; scratch that last one, it’s just the beer talking.
The problem with all this covert socialising is it makes the writer what he would most deny being: a herd member. Bit by bit and without him noticing, he accepts the warmth and security of numbers, of automatic support. He enjoys knowing that they know that he knows that what they all know is not what the non-herd knows (even though actually they do). He starts to notice herd names mentioned in awards; he hopes his will soon follow. He listens to the talk about what editor X likes and doesn’t like. He finds it harder to write as fluently as he once did; but that’s okay: he has friends he can talk to about it, who will understand.
Traditionally, however, story-tellers told stories to the herd. They were the one facing the herd, studying it, working it, entertaining it. But they were never part of it. Because the modern story-teller can’t know who his audience is, he has to launch his story at another target. Roughly speaking, there are three to choose from:
1. Creative transition/the unknown
2. Imaginary readers
3. Something else
Let’s deal with 2 and 3 first. 2 is problematic. The traditional story-teller adjusted his story according to the reactions he saw in his audience; probably included some of them as characters in it. But if the modern writer tries to do the same with his imaginary readers, he’ll just be talking to himself. Apart from the obvious symptom this reflects, the problem is he can’t then surprise himself; therefore, his story is going to be predictable and derivative. It’s like trying to work out beforehand what your girlfriend is going to say about the fact you’ve just lost a grand betting on the gee-gees. When you meet her, you start answering the questions you thought she was going to ask but of course she interrupts you to ask some that you just didn’t see coming.
As for 3, ‘something else’ can be that award you really would rather like to win; or that editor you just know loves stories about gay robots. The problem with this is it means you’ve lain down railway tracks that your story is now destined to run along. And chances are, they’re not perfectly aimed, because you’re not being totally honest with yourself about your true intentions, and so you’ll miss your destination anyway.
Okay, for 1, let’s go back to that probably mostly mythical time when bards roamed the land. They were the story-tellers of their day but while they had consummate social skills (their lives could depend on them when singing to a megalomaniac king, for example), they weren’t part of the community they entertained. They didn’t want to be, because they needed to be telling stories full of the strange and exotic and new. And the community wanted them to remain distant, to spend most of their time travelling in foreign places, collecting more fantastic stories.
Fast forward to today and a group of people are out for the evening in a wine bar. They’re having a conversation but all of them are also on their mobile phones. The conversations taking place on Facebook and Twitter feed into and out of the conversations they’re having ‘live’ with each other. This doesn’t really matter because there probably isn’t much difference in content between the two social realms. Leaving aside the question of whether or not they should give priority to the friends who’ve actually bothered to turn up, the question here for the writer is: is he doing the same with his stories?
Groucho Marx once said, “Here are my principles and if you don’t like them—I’ve got some more.” Today, it’s very easy for a writer to say, “Here are my stories and if you don’t like them—I’ll write you some you will like.”
Social media is comforting. Everyone shares with people who think like they do. What they share makes them think even more like their Facebook friends. After a time, if you’re not careful, it isn’t really thinking at all; it’s herd behaviour. Then it’s harder to think differently because if you do, you might alienate your friends.
So, the writer has a choice to make. Does he aim his stories at the reader herd or does he step away from his writers’ herd and concentrate on 3: head-off into the creative unknown where he will need to make some sort of transition in himself, rather like a bard’s training, in order to first hear the music of the universe and second to translate it into stories which don’t do what’s expected of them, that surprise and illuminate and transform?
There is no doubt at all that there are millions of readers out there who want something different to herd fodder. But most of them are probably social media users too. Because of this they may not initially be as open to something different as their reader ancestors were, but that doesn’t matter: they will be once the writer does his thing.
Nowhere is this dichotomy of story origin more apparent than in Science Fiction. SF movies make huge amounts of cash and appeal to a massive herd. SF literature, on the other hand, is a tiny genre where writers are lucky to make enough money to pay for their ticket to Worldcon, even when it’s in their own country.
It’s difficult to see movie writers aiming their stories at 1. There’s too much at risk in doing so. But it’s also risky for the solo fiction writer. For quite some time now, traditional publishing has aimed mostly at the largest herds it can identify, and producing downwards pressure on writers to satisfy them. Self-publishing offers writers more interested in 1 the chance to at least make their work available, but it’s a longer haul. When you put a story up for sale on Kindle, you have to ‘tag’ it, and there is no tag named ‘Not What I Expected But Really Good and Made Me Think Too’.
So, all this needs to go on in the writer’s mind before he actually starts writing or even thinking about what he’s going to write. If he doesn’t consider these issues, then he’ll automatically default to a herd approach, either of the writers in his gang or of the commercial herds targeted by the fiction business; or both.