Furry Writers' Guild Forum

Write For Yourself, or Write For Your Audience?

After discussing this topic in quite heated terms in the shoutbox a couple of nights ago, I think it’s worthwhile to pose the question here in order for the rest of the guild to have a chance to think about it.

The quandary is, should a writer stick to their style and write in that vein, or, should writers change their writing in order to succeed in getting their work published? Another way to think of it is this; if a writer primarily writes literary fiction, should he/she change their style to genre fiction in order to get the work into print?

We’re told after all that writing is one of those things you should do for yourself. Write what you’re interested in. Yet, what happens if pursuing that thinking only prevents the writer from getting their work published?

There are a lot of, to be blunt, idealistic mantras surrounding writing that influence our thinking on the subject. A common one found in new writers is the notion that everything should be write perfectly in the first draft - a spawn of the notion of Romantic genius. Yet experienced writers know that you should write, and then edit. So, is the notion of writing for yourself a similar illusion?

Also, it’s also worthwhile to consider a whether being in print confirms the legitimacy of being a writer. I mean, anyone can call themselves a writer without being published. Is it important in being a writer to make that transition from posting things on websites, to being published in things that have an editorial process? Is after all, being in print a promissory note to the reader that what you’ve written is actually good?

Food for thought.

Is writing art, or is writing a job?

This is gonna have to be long. You already know all of this, but it’s to give some context.

The question was spawned in the eighteenth century, when the industrial revolution and the rise in alphabetization introduced the concept of “free time”. Before then, there was no doubt: literature was something rich/educated people enjoyed as a form of art, and the commercialization of that was reduced to either collections in the mansion of a nobleman or the pastime of someone working as a notary. You enjoy Machiavelli, if I remember correctly: he wasn’t a professional writer, they just didn’t exist. Writing was from the upper class, for the upper class. The population didn’t have the time, or the money, or the education.

But then something changed: when people stopped working mostly with crops, suddendly they realised they had a lot of time to spend for themselves in the city. Some started drinking it away, some turned to entertainment. And books, now that most people had access to both education and daily sources of reading (such as newspapers, or simply factory instructions) became entertainment.

This was met with fiery opposition from the old writers. Now people who were able to earn from writing? Unconceivable! And what’s more important, they weren’t doing it because they had a message to send. They were looking for readers, and it showed: Arthur Conan Doyle resurrected Sherlock Holmes due to popular demand, creating the first retcon. Dickens changed the plot in the successive installments of his stories according to the reaction of the public. Collodi rewrote the story of Pinocchio so that he didn’t die in the belly of the whale. Popular demand dictated the writer.

All of those people either hated these changes or didn’t view their work as art.

From this point of view, Fifty Shades of Grey would be the best book of all times. It’s the best selling one. Yet it’s ****. Same for Twilight.

The famous books we always hear about from the past aren’t the best selling ones, also. I’ve studied History of Publishing, and I can guarantee you that bestsellers only manage to survive the test of time if they’re good. There are a lot of books that sold more than those remembered by universities that would be considered really bad by today standards… and even by the standards back then.

But let’s put idealism aside. Let’s say that quality isn’t your focus. You want to sell. How do you do it?

The first way would be to follow in the footsteps of what’s popular - see the massive wave of vampire/werewolves/angels love stories that followed the Twilight craze. That kind of thing sells, because fans of something are always looking for more stuff to quench their thirst. But they don’t last: where are all the Twihards now? Young Adult is what’s in these days, but even that seems to be destined not to last for long.

So, if you want to sell yourself and make a quick buck, find out what’s popular and copy that. You won’t go hungry, but you’ll have to repeat it every couple of months. But you will never be able to form a solid fanbase that way, because people will follow you for what’s popular, not for what you write. Also, after a while they will realise that. And also, again, the Internet is chock-full of those people. You’d be a drop in the ocean.

The other way is to be ahead of the curve and anticipate the next shift in popular culture. That’s impossible. It’s basically random, and if there was some way to do that you can bet that publishers would be in way better shape than they are now. You can’t anticipate what’s going to be popular. You can either try to enforce it through aggressive marketing, or bet everything on something you’re convinced will sell. That’s just luck, though.

The third way is the one I prefer. We live in the age of the death of the middleman: people will interact personally with their authors. They will form communities, write wikies, create forums and try to convince other people that what they like is really good. And those people will never follow an author if they think he’s viewing them just as a source of money. You have to build trust, and to build trust you must write what you believe in, not what you believe will sell. Of course you must also shape your works in the way you think would work best with your readers, but if they’re born because of that, nobody will spend their time talking about them on the internet.

I personally just write what I’d want to read. If I think it’s good, I’m confident other people will think it’s good.

The rest, to me, it’s luck.

MrMandolino has some really good points here. However, I think it’s important to remember that what Televassi asks really is not a true dichotomy. It is entirely possible to produce both elevated literary work and popular work at the same time. The popular works will have the largest readership, while the literary works often take many years before they achieve recognition and appreciation.

I believe it comes down to one question. Do you expect (or at least want) to make an actual living as a writer? While it is possible to do so, that will definitely require you to make some compromises in terms of subject matter and angle of approach. You will very likely have to do some journalistic writing, a lot of self-promotion (endless in fact) and burn the candle at both ends in terms of time put into writing and selling your work and most likely maintaining a mundane day job for years before you can live solely by your writer’s art.

If you can derive your basic living by other means, another interest, a job you can enjoy or at least tolerate, and still have time to write, then you have the option of being strictly an artist of the word. That’s the writer who writes only what he or she chooses and when she or he chooses to do so. Both exist and have existed for a while now. It’s also possible to move from one status into the other. Certainly someone like Patterson, Cussler, or King no longer has any need to continue writing “what sells.” They can choose to do only the “literary” if they wish, and they can expect to keep being published. Likewise, anyone with literary aspirations can start out by writing popular romances or pornography and later reveal the high-toned poetry they’ve been working on all along. Though I honestly suggest if you choose this method that you have a pseudonym for the popular stuff and keep it separate from the literary work until you can safely come out of the closet. At least one very popular furry author is in this situation right now.

There is no single answer to your question, Televassi. One thing in your favor if you want to publish as a literary writer is the fact that self-publication no longer has the stigma it once did. Publishing is now a rapidly changing environment, and I predict that the traditional system that has been tyrannized by corporate needs for profit is crumbling. It is following much the same route already taken by recorded music and now by film and television production.

Self-published authors have to put in a lot of work at self-promotion to build audience recognition. A few have done so with good success, so it is possible. Furry as a niche market and audience may make this a little easier, as we can see in the successes of Kyell Gold in writing and Fox Amoore in music composition and performance, but it still depends on ability, talent, and a lot of hard work and persistence.

“Literary” publications in the furry environment haven’t had a lot of success. It’s a popular audience with relatively few connoisseurs out there. I could name several journals or magazines that have died that death. I believe eventually we’ll see a change as the potential audience grows larger and more sophisticated. In the meanwhile, don’t give up on literature. We certainly have some perceptive editors in the fandom who are taking chances on more thoughtful and complex work.

I should also add here: At the present time, and the present rates of return, the odds of making a living or even much of a supplemental income from furry writing alone are pretty thin. If your goal is to be a professional writer, you are almost certainly going to need to work in the so-called “mainstream” as well. Several FWG members are pushing at this edge. Some have been doing it all along. I have published a little in the “mainstream” environment long before I tried furry writing. I also worked as a professional in the technical writing field, deriving my entire income from writing for several years. It was a decent living, but no one will ever remember my name from all those hours spent writing. I even received a professional award in that field, likewise forgotten as soon as the certificate came in the mail. Nonetheless, those years of experience have contributed considerably to my writing skills. It’s a viable option.

Altivo’s right, I tend to be a bit black-and-white about the subject. Sorry about that, I have to learn how to keep my overenthusiasm in check.

I think the answer to this question is every bit as vital to success, as long-term binding, and as crucial to one’s moral compass as “what’s your favorite color?” The answer changes over time as a writer grows and develops.

On the one hand, if we don’t enjoy writing it won’t happen, especially in the early days when the only rewards are intangible. A reader of my stuff recently went over my early works and pointed out numerous flaws in them, mostly centered on the fact they all too obviously featured a little-altered version of me as the protagonist. (Once you get to know me fairly well this becomes even more obvious than to someone who doesn’t.) I wrote back that of course they were flawed that way-- not only was I still learning how not to do things like that, but the visceral joy of living out my fantasies was the only payment I ever expected so the stories would never have happened at all-- and I’d never have grown as a writer-- had I even attempted to do anything else. In the early days, it’s clear to me, writers need to write for themselves or else they’ll grow discouraged and quit.

Later, things change. You make a few sales, and while the love of it all had better not vanish entirely, spending hours a day at a keyboard becomes routine. Even more importantly, you begin to appreciate the difference between writing for fun (few edits and lots of new material) versus working to commercial levels of excellence (at least twice as long spent editing and submitting work/e-mailing your publisher as actually composing). To give people an idea of what’s involved here, I’m on the very verge of finishing up the last edits on a five-book series I began, I think, in mid/late 2013. In order to accomplish this task in that amount of time I’ve spend at least three hours practically every day since then working on this project, and often much longer to compensate for the occasional day off. Even lying in my sickbed in the hospital after a heart attack, unsure if I was going to live or die, I kept up this schedule. Why? Because to write at the professional level requires it.

And once you’re committing that much of your life to anything, unless your’e independently wealthy (which I am not) you’d better see some sort of financial rewards for your work. Otherwise the cold cruel laws of economics are going to see to it that you don’t expend so much effort for no tangible return for very long. Almost no one can afford to invest this much of their lives in anything short of child-rearing without some kind of hoped-for financial return. In my case, I made serious money on the last such series I wrote-- less professionally, by the way, due to both lack of time and lack of expectation that the world might take any interest in it. Having had that experience, it’s only natural-- and right, I’d argue, that encouraged by commercial success I’d work even harder this time to make the new series _another _ commercial success. After all, I’m retired. It’s not like I can’t use the money! And besides… If people are willing to pay for something, doesn’t that mean they like it? And isn’t creating something people like a worthy end in and of itself?

I don’t see anything in the least wrong or immoral about this-- I’ve (almost) always written more with the aim of entertaining than producing Great Literature-- the latter is a very different process that, while I’ve tried my hand at it and it’s made me happy to do so, I know full well isn’t my forte. Nor do I feel that I’m exchanging my birthright for a bowl of soup-- for the most part I felt, as I typed away at my most recent action-adventure, that I was doing what I was born to do. The books I remember best are those that both entertain and challenge me with new ideas-- this is exactly what I strive for in my own work. It’s thoughtful genre-fiction, not literature, and therefore low versus high art. But while I love both, the low stuff is generally what I love best.

Is my later “commercial” stuff as close to my own heart and soul as the earlier, written-only-for-pure-joy early stuff? No, it’s not-- my recent work is clearly influenced by a desire to sell tens of thousands of books. On the other hand, I’d never have devoted so much time and love and effort to these last five books-- wouldn’t have been able to!-- without the prospect of commercial success serving as a light at the end of the tunnel.

Don’t get me wrong-- this series could easily crash and burn, sales-wise. I’ve got all my fingers, toes and ears crossed hoping that it’ll do well, but that doesn’t ensure it will. Another thing about writing is that every new work, once you begin to factor in the commercial world, is an enormous risk. So, it’s best that you never get past loving what you do, given that terrible disappointment may await you at any moment. Besides… Even if these books earn me the twenty grand I’m really hoping for, I could have worked overtime at my old job for an equal number of hours-- or even driven for Uber-- and earned far more. Writing must always be partially about about love as well, in other words.

When I was a little kid, blue was my favorite color. Then I sort of slid over to green without admitting to anyone that I’d been wrong the first time, and nowadays I look at the entire spectrum and feel that every shade has its place. It’s the same with writing-- as I develop and grow my motivations and drivers change as well. It’s not at all hard, for example, for me to picture myself sitting in an old-folks home someday, once again pounding out totally self-centered anthro-rabbit stories and smiling as I do so, unable anymore to sustain commercial quality but thrilled to please whatever few readers I might still have left, not expecting to make a dime.

In other words, the wheel will have turned full circle and I’ll not regret a single stage of the cycle.

I’ll count that as a happy ending, by the way. =;)

I can only write for myself. I don’t understand people well enough to try and second-guess what they find entertaining. If I were to make the attempt, it would probably read as though it were a satire. ^.^;

Dwale, that comes under one of those “advice to beginners” topics. Know your target publisher/publication/editor. If you don’t think you understand the audience, you read a lot of what they seem to be buying. That’s usually a good way to get the idea, whatever it may be.

That’s not what I mean. I mean something more along the lines of…let’s say I visited Zimbabwe and wanted to write for a Zimbabwean audience. While I could research and then dress my work in the trappings of Zimbabwean culture and storytelling, it would yet possess qualities of artifice and otherness that would prove obvious to most of the readership. I could impersonate the Zimbabwean zeitgeist, but not wholly incorporate it.

And so I feel it would be were I to attempt tailoring my work for any other given readership.

I’m a bit insulted. Do you suppose that I’m a beginner?

The only time I write for someone other than myself is when I write for an anthology with a specific topic. I do not think there is anything wrong with writing or not writing to your or any audience. While even I have judged some recent trends in popular fiction harshly, that does not make them any less artistic… just not my artistic cup of tea. It is also important to remember the good some of these books do in creating readers, sustaining literacy, and opening up books for greater popularity. For those of us that do not approve of the 50 Shades, Twilight, etc, we should do what we can to woo those readers to compatible work (by us or others) that we might approve of more. I suppose that means, at the very least, considering your audience when you are writing for the purpose of sharing with the random public.

The simplest way I can think of to speak on literature/genre, published/unpublished, is there both heavily impacted by class, race, and gender. Therefore, I try to avoid not reading something because what specific genre it is. Instead, I would rather read what I enjoy. However, both literature and genre fiction is far too white, too heteronormative, and lacking in gender diversity. To be a writer is nothing more than to say you are a storyteller who chose to write with words. There are plenty of writers out there who were never published, published after death, or circumstantially unable to be published.

Then again, I never intend to make a living off of telling stories.

While others have said a fair amount of what I’d say, I’d underline the implicit question: what’s your goal for your writing? There’s several different answers to that question, and they’re not mutually exclusive. Here’s a few:

  • You have an idea of the kind of story you want to read in your head, and nobody else seems to be writing those stories.
  • You want to get your words in front of as many people as you can.
  • You want people you respect to be impressed by your ability. You don’t expect significant financial return, but you want a Cóyotl Award.
  • You want to be your own boss as much as you can.
  • You would like to win a Hugo or Nebula for a progressive furry transhumanist story and smack Vox Day in the head with your statuette.

Your goals are going to tailor your writing to some degree. Annie, a friendly acquaintance of mine, set out a couple years ago to hit that “be your own boss” target and chose the route of self-publishing a series of urban fantasy novellas, and she approaches it almost more like a science than an art: she wanted a series she could write relatively quickly, publish quickly, sell cheaply and build up a significant audience for in just a couple years.

For me, I don’t realistically expect to make a significant income writing; I wouldn’t mind it, sure, but it’s not my goal. But back in the early '90s, I had a bug up my ass about promoting furry stories that could go beyond the fandom; that influenced both my writing work and, through Mythagoras, my editing work. I’ve realized as I’ve been working on my novel Kismet that that bug is still there.

So is Annie’s approach about writing for her audience and my approach about writing just for me? I don’t think so. I think in both cases we’re writing for both ourselves and our intended audiences. I’m sure Annie is writing the kind of fiction she wants to read, just like I am. Her intended audience likely has more overlap with fans of Patricia Briggs, and my intended audience probably has more overlap with fans of…well, I’m not sure. A little Arthur C. Clarke, a little Christopher Moore, a little Barbara Kingsolver? Hey, if there was fiction out there exactly like this already, I wouldn’t have to write it.

Actually no, and that’s why I was surprised to see you say what you did. I really do believe a good writer can adapt to almost anything given enough effort. Not suggesting you could learn to write in an unfamiliar language overnight or in a couple of weeks, but writing for any specific audience (at least, if that audience has a literary tradition that works in your language) is indeed possible. It just takes sufficient study of the existing materials beforehand.

I should add that Joseph Conrad, for example, pulled it off in a second language and one that he did not even speak. He wrote in English, sounded like an Englishman, when in fact he was Polish and mostly self taught in English by reading a lot of English writers. If that’s possible, writing in a native folk idiom or addressing a different subculture from your own is also possible.

Is there any particular reason you don’t apologize when you offend people?

I suppose it might be because no one ever seems to apologize for offending me.

I do apologize (and if you are referring to an incident a week or more back, I apologized profusely but received no response.) In this case I didn’t read your response as being that seriously offended. No offense was intended, certainly. I was not judging you or anyone. I’m sorry if I worded the response that badly.

Thank you, Altivo. And rest assured, if I ever should offend you, you need only let me know and I shall attempt to make amends immediately.

Getting back on topic…

I’ll have to agree that it depends on your purpose for writing. Are you looking to make money? If so, writing for an audience is usually the best route. Looking to indulge your hobby? Go ahead and write for yourself. The two categories will meet down the line, but again, you have to determine your goal.

I think the biggest reason that this whole discussion began is that you mentioned you want to change your writing just to get accepted or published. Partially this is related back to goals and sometimes you have to change or do something you’re not familiar with or happy with to achieve those. I feel most people just get worried when someone talks about trying to make their writing fit. From what I continue to learn about writing is that there is no one right way to do it.

There are authors out there who say, "I want to be the next " to which many reply, “We have one of those, why don’t you be yourself with your own voice.” So when everyone scrambles up to debate about you changing yourself, I believe we’re just being cautious that you feel you have to change when we want to see what you can bring to the table. If we all wrote the same boring thing, then nothing would ever be interesting.

The tigrox is right. We should all write completely different boring things!

I said it in chat and I’ll say it in here: Patrick Rothfuss wrote for himself for about a decade and a half. When he finally released his baby, it made best seller for a solid chunk of time, and stayed on the top ten for even longer. He’s been hailed as this generation’s Tolkein by some reputable reviewers. All because he was unwilling to compromise his work, and took his time with it.

I think previous commenters already scored on the ultimate question- if you’re doing this for money or for yourself. I believe there’s a second question to be considered though that kind of goes next in the figurative flow-chart here: Are you looking to produce something you can actually say with pride, “I wrote that!” or are you looking to just get paid?

It sounds like a shrug-worthy question, but it was something I had to seriously consider at one point. It was back when I was looking to take written commissions- to get an idea of what subjects and quality sold and for how much, I browsed through some of the stories on FA, and most of what I found was cringe-worthy quality I knew I could easily whip up within minutes.

It was one of the most painful processes in my writing experience thus far. Trying to write something that didn’t meet at least subpar personal standards literally made me physically ill. Because of this, what should have taken ten minutes wound up taking days, if not weeks. I realized that writing story commissions was much like putting on a catsuit that was perfectly tailored to someone two inches shorter and five inches slimmer than me, but by gum I was going to make it work if it killed me!

So I guess you just need to find your own line for pride vs money. I had to learn the hard way where mine was, and I never want to go near that line again x.x

Lots of various sentiments and stances expressed so far, so I’ll do my best to expand on them. This post is split into to bits - one is about print culture and history, the other is my response proper. The latter is much shorter, so feel free to skip to it.

History Ramble

Potentially, I think we’re being mislead when talking about writing for books to sell. Doubtless when we talk about the practice in a modern context, the side-effect of any print culture is the hacks producing works designed to sell in bulk. However, we’re potentially letting ourselves get sucked into a romanticized notion of literature.

The dichotomy set we’ve set up in modernity is one that at it’s most basic level, assumed that in order to sell, the literary value of a text is compromised. The inverse, though not as stigmatized, is that a work of high literature does not sell much - and it is therein that we can see the impact money has on our ideas of literature. We’re caught up in this notion - a cultural legacy that exists from the Romantic and Aesthetic movements in art and literature - that to be high literature is to not make financial gain. Or, to gloss the Aesthetes and Decadents, that art, real, high art, must be for art’s sake alone. Now, there’s a huge irony to this belief - it’s a myth that we’ve fallen in love with, but one that obscures the reality. An interesting example (the critic is Margaret Stetz if I remember correctly), is that even though the Aesthetes and Decadents, who believed literature and art could only be for art’s sake, actually behind this persona scrambled to get their works into publication in order to make money. In Stetz’s paper about the publishing market of 1890’s England (the high point of decadence and aestheticism), she cites as an example that even the creme of English Decadence, Oscar Wilde, was producing literature in order to sell. If we go further back to the Romantics, the irony is that Wordsworth’s famous ‘Lyrical Ballads’ was actually produced to make him a quick buck. Our association that this is a simple dichotomy of evil money and good literature is false.

Though this is a gloss, most of the ‘Canon’ of English literature is made up of works considered to be high art, but also, works that were phenomenally successful. To pick on French Decadence as a prime example, Joris-Karl Huysmans’ Against Nature (A Rebours), the very epitome of decadence and all it’s aims, was a wildly successful publishing phenomenon. It made a lot of money, and was a craze. The problem is, looking back on this history, we only encounter the book in study, and so, because it is not popular now, we’re more susceptible to believe that it’s somehow pure, and untouched from the print market.

If we look back at works from before the print market came to be, works like Beowulf, Gawain and the Green Knight, and other such surviving texts, were not so much works that sold in our understanding, but would have been popularized, and preserved. Most writers at this time may not have written for a mass audience, but instead their literature was a commodity because they often used to as a storytelling profession (as those reciting Beowulf or the Iliad would have done in oral cultures) - their works were once that had an audience. The benefit of the print market was that writers no longer were bound to the aristocracy under a system of patronage (where they wrote to impress those who paid them - Machiavelli’s The Prince is an example of this), but were free to gain income without catering to the nobility.


The question is this, do you as furry writers, write for yourself or for the furry fandom that reads what you write? To get more at it, is the very act of writing and publishing something that regardless of our own thoughts, reveals that we do write for an audience? Is writing itself, as esoteric as we may like to believe? Even a work that has been created carefully for years, and then is successful, reveals that it has an audience, even if not expressly written so?

Ultimately, I’m not suggesting that works are explicitly written for the audience. Rather, that the act of writing, publishing, and storytelling, entail that all writers have a relationship with a hypothetical audience. They may not have it in mind, but the act of creating and sharing stories is a communal act that revolves around the notion of telling that story to others, and them hopefully liking it. Just because it is expressed these days in money does not mean that the writer is selling out. Ultimately, we all write for an audience, it’s just which one do we choose?

Does that fandom actually read what I write? suddenly gets excited Did they actually tell you that? I didn’t think they’d actually do that. I figured I’d just write things I enjoy and hope maybe one day, someone else might like it too.