Playing to audience expectations/desires

Hello fellow serializers. I recently read this blog post:

by Veronica Roth, regarding the backlash she's gotten since releasing the final book of her trilogy, Allegiant. It reminded me of something I think we deal with a lot. Not so much backlash, but getting lots and lots of feedback on our books and whether or not we let them steer our writing.

I guess that's what I'm wondering. How much of the story do you guys write for the audience, and how much "for yourself?" Have you ever changed a plot due to the way an audience was reacting, or have you stubbornly continued even if the readers didn't like it? Just curious how much you guys let your readers guide the writing.

I don't have a lot of readers so I don't get loads of feedback...but I have couple of people who'll comment on events and speculate about where things are going plot wise...and sometimes getting an insight into how things look for them has changed the plot a bit. Judging their reaction to a current plot line or character will sometimes make me rethink something to come...I realize it won't make sense or it wouldn't believable.

So while I haven't actually gotten any 'bad' reactions (my readers are all too nice :-)) I have gotten feedback from them that led me to change minor to bigger points in the plot line. I have a very definite over-arching story, that no, I don't think I would change, but how we get from point b. to point c., I have edited a bit in the planning when I see how people react to point a.

I sort of talk about my view on the author-audience-text relationships here, written in response to readers musing on why they liked the writing and how they didn't feel manipulated by it. - it's a bit of a ramble, I was working on 3 hours of sleep, but yeah.

More specifically, I have had bad reactions, though fortunately I've not had any in areas that I couldn't fix somewhere down the road.

Early on, I changed the plot to tailor it to the audience when Von, a WFG regular I haven't seen/heard from in the last two years, said (rightly) I was putting too much focus on the school part of the story. It was limited to a few scenes, but I did end up ending the school thing earlier than originally planned, cutting a fair bit of material, with the protagonist effectively dropping out early in the story, where I'd imagined postponing that for a stretch.

I've had bigger scenarios. Two chapters that got enough of a bad response that I took them down. One I rewrote in an all-nighter, the other I removed from the story entirely. The readers were right. They weren't good. It was something fixable (ie. gutting that part of the story).

I've also had one story arc (6 chapters) which were poorly conceived. I implemented a timeskip, a leap ahead in the story's chronology, and it immediately followed an event I'd put a lot of thought into, and it was followed by events I'd put a lot of thought into, but it was poorly thought out on its own. To top it off, I had a lot of real life distractions, with my brother, his wife and his two year old staying with me for a stretch, and a two week 'vacation' with all of us in one cabin. It translated to one of my poorest arcs, and my readers still like beating that dead horse, four or five months later. But that's fixable.

At the end of the day, though, I'm writing the kind of story I'd want to read. I know myself as a reader, and I know what I like, and I know there's readers out there like me. So long as I stay true to that, I'm okay.

(Written from the point of view of me talking to a fan) Mainly, I write for me. If you don't like it, that's a YOU problem, not a ME problem.

That said, if somebody points something out, and I think, "They're right, I should listen to them," I will conform to what the readers want. It's one thing to want to write the story you want; it's another entirely to ignore good, well-thought-out criticism on where the story's going.

On endings: I think that you need to do what the story deserves. Every story needs a different ending, whether it's happy (Harry Potter) or sad (The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet). You need to decide your own ending; your readers, while they can influence the middle, shouldn't touch the ending, since that's generally the part people will remember the most.

I only started World Domination in Retrospect because people wanted more than just the craziness I dropped in the comments of LoN and Worm. So there's that. Also, the humor tends to be of the sort that the audience doesn't really linger unless they like it.

Didn't necessarily have a clue what I was going to do with things, where it was going, any of that, so I had to figure that out and things are going a certain way, but I'm not opposed to feedback from readers. In fact, one early piece of feedback regarding the topical "Get In Line, Oppenheimer" arc was rather prescient and useful. It may have changed the direction I was going to go at times, but the plot, as much as there is one, was not yet formulated at that time to say I altered it drastically.

I'd be willing to see what some people have to say, in part because the existence of it is somewhat a fanservice, but the people who read so far seem to enjoy me taking things in the direction they're headed and there are limits. Nobody changes the Gecko. Though someone did have a very nice fanwork I liked.

Just tossing in my own two cents here, since I don't get much feedback either (except from people I know personally, which has significantly less kick than I would expect an Internet audience would give), but I feel that we as writers have an obligation to write something GOOD. What is good is obviously highly subjective, but if the general consensus is that what has been written is bad writing, then there's no shame in going back and changing it.

We write for ourselves, at the end of the day, though. The reader certainly has an investment in the story but it is nothing compared to the author's stake. Once, way back in one of my first experiments with serial fiction, I tried writing a chapter to the story pandering to my audience, and I can honestly say it was one of the worst things I had ever written. They were disappointed; I was disappointed. People are fickle beasts and predicting what they want from a story is hard, so I'd say go with really the only reliable litmus test you have: write what makes YOU happy.

(And looking at the previous posts, it's good to see a lot of people feel the same way. I'm noticing both an openness to reader feedback and an independence in terms of content, and I'm beginning to wonder if those are qualities more prevalent in web serial writers, just because of the nature of the medium, or if that's just a common philosophy among writers in general. Food for thought, I suppose.)

I haven't rewritten much. Basically, I had one episode that ended too quickly, and made a few mistakes in the process. That I rewrote, adding a certain amount of material in the process.

That said, I do use reader reactions as a guide. I'm fairly careful about what I want to be immediately understood vs. what I want to be a surprise. There's also stuff that doesn't really matter to the story, but is a part of the background.

What people talk about in the comments often tells me how well I'm doing at keeping the obvious obvious, and what's supposed to be obscure, obscure. if something's supposed to be clear by a certain point, I make it clearer in the next episode. If people figure out something that's supposed to be secret, well, I let them. I don't react to it though. More often than not, it turns out that people weren't confident about it, and were just speculating.

In any case, I'm generally of the opinion that I should be writing something interesting enough that people will keep on reading even if they've guessed a little of what's coming.

NaomiL - Same here. I've gotten little crits here and there, mostly people confused about one detail or another or grammar fixes. But once I hit my last chapter people were left a little dry (it was the only chapter that was posted as a first draft). Our initial thought was that it needed an epilogue, but I've ended up doing something very different. I want to give them what they wanted, but in the most unexpected way possible. I guess that is always my goal! So I often listen to crits, but hardly ever suggestions on how to fix. That, I think, is up to the writer. But being able to have that back and forth with the reader is, for me, the biggest draw for serializing online. So fun and addictive.

Wildbow - What you wrote gives me lots of solace, that your story had so many ups and downs but your readers still stuck around. There are maybe 4-5 problematic chapters in Rema that I could tell the readers just weren't feeling, and my agent has also noted that they make the entire novel feel like it's only "80% there." I definitely want to go back and rework all that. Also it's really fascinating how you've used your ALDS studies for your writing, and it clarifies the source of your style to me a lot. My husband always credits his essay-writing course for helping him learn storytelling better than any actual screenwriting class (he was a film studies major, basically studying to be a film critic). I love it when someone can take experiences from different backgrounds and apply it to writing. So cool and, as a reader, really appreciated. :)

alex5972 - I definitely agree at this point that the ending can make or break a book! It has certainly been the case for mine. Well, in my case make a book or make it quietly putter to a stop. :P

Jim raises an interesting issue.

When you're keeping secrets from the readers, having things in the serial format and having an active, vocal audience really helps on some levels, and screws you over on others. It makes it easier to gauge if you're getting too close to revealing it all. This allows for fine tuning a work so things are just mysterious enough that people don't clue in, but that it still feels reasonable and 'fair'.

On the other hand, it leaves the door open for people to figure those secrets out and announce them to the readership. I confess I had a few nights where I tossed and turned and got up from bed a few times to check the computer and make sure that nobody had connected dots.

Jim and Wildbow - Oh man. I was so nervous about that! There were a few things that were really predictable, but I tried to use them as red herrings. It was really gratifying to read those "whoa never saw that coming!" comments. There was one reader that was pretty good at predicting things, but she almost treated it like a game and didn't deter her enjoyment. I guess some readers are like that!

KCaiShi - That's an interesting point, about online authors and openness to feedback! I wonder too.

I just released my last official chapter (epilogue chapters will run for 3 weeks). Sort of sympathizing with Mrs. Roth at present.

Good feedback overall, but the people who are ticked are ticked.

Congrats on finishing!

Congrats Wildbow. Looking forward to your last chapter, but more importantly your next work! Definitely the right time to bring it to a close. Regarding people connecting the dots, with the Worm community -and the way you crafted the story- theories were being thrown around all over the place. Even if someone connected the dots, there were so many other dots being connected incorrectly it all just ended up in a big scribble. Personally I really enjoyed reading peoples predictions (that fit!) and finding them, 99% of the time wildly incorrect - that 1% was still really satisfying as a reader. That's one thing I like about reading serials you don't get from books. Whenever I finish a book I want someone else to have read it so I can see what they think. With serials that happens every chapter... Anyway, getting distracted.

Though I don't get any kind of feedback like worm, and don't have anywhere near the complexity/twisty plot, I do get comments that let me keep track of hints I drop. I find it very hard to gauge whether they are stupidly obvious or totally unnoticeable. But then I've found people get half way through the book and not realise some things that others caught as soon as a hint was dropped. I haven't yet adjusted anything because of it.

Regarding feedback on the story in general, I had negative comments about one chapter. It was one I felt very strongly about and stuck to it. I'm glad I did and have since got positive feedback about it. It did make me think of the future and bring some elements I hadn't had immediately planned much closer - and people loved that element when we came to it so I'm glad I made those changes. So kind of a mix there.

I started writing for myself, but as my audience grows I do feel like I owe them something they will enjoy...

Wildbow: Wow, it's going to take some getting used to with you done with Worm. Congrats on finishing; I hope that everybody enjoyed your ending. It is my goal to read it by the end of next year (seriously, it's really long), and I hope that Taylor turns out okay at the end.

Wildbow whoa! Huge congratulations~!!!! And yeah... there will always be unsatisfied customers. Can't make EVERYONE happy. I'm glad I posted the Roth blog post then. I thought she handled herself really well. Also reading this post about the after-effects of reading a good book is worth a look:

AGreyWorld - it's so great you have that internal compass that lets you know when to stick to your guns and when to take the crits. I'm still working on that. My first reaction is always "I'm wrong, they're right" and sometimes it bites me in the ass. :P

Amy Kim Kibuishi, I surprised myself as usually I do default to the "I'm wrong" too. It just so happened it was the one thing I felt so sure about.

I hate the ending of books, the feeling after finishing one is almost enough to put me off picking up another. I call it a book hangover.

I had my first comment explicitly calling for a certain development a couple of days ago, actually - they wanted more of a certain character. I'm already planning on bringing them back in about four chapters, but I did briefly consider jumping it forward. I think I'm going to stick to my guns though.

(I may have given them a background-of-a-video cameo as a little bonus though.)

Congratulations Wildbow! Among my friends who read Worm and I, we all liked the ending- although some of them aren't quite ready to give their final evaluations until the "ENDING ending" happens with the epilogue chapters.

AGreyWorld- haha, book hangover sums it up exactly. Sometimes I feel one of the hallmarks of a good author is someone who leaves their reader just a little frustrated, wanting just a little more, after finishing the story. I suppose (swinging back around to the main topic discussion) that's where an author's judgment trumps the reader's; ending the story early rather than late so as not to dilute the experience, even if the readers want more.

Wait, having an audience is an option? *rimshot*

Speaking seriously, though, I'm a part of the "write for yourself" camp. It's true that making an audience happy is important, but you can do that more thoroughly and easily by using your own head and skills instead of just playing to their tastes. That's always what I've believed, at least; giving the people something they didn't even know they wanted will always trump giving them exactly what they want. Works for inventors, at least. (Note: I don't actually know anything about inventors.)

Even so, I'm not so into myself that I'll completely disregard a (theoretical) audience. If people give me reactions, I'll take them VERY seriously -- especially now, given that they're trying to help me improve. They help me find flaws I wouldn't have even considered, and give me something to move forward with in the future. If people think I'm a slow starter, then I get things going faster. If people say I'm being trite, I'll try to spice things up...even if I don't really know how, but whatever. Creators and fans should work together.

For a shining world! Or something to that effect.