A story emerges from what we have been calling the ‘heart’ of a writer, progresses through that writer’s mind onto a page or screen, and thence moves through a publication process (it it’s accepted by another) to some kind of venue where it can be viewed by the correct readers, who then process the thing so that it ends up in their hearts (if it’s good enough). It’s kind of like telepathy with a few mechanical steps added: writers are trying to get something transmitted through a series of steps from one heart to another. In a non-material world, this would be done pleasurably and directly, one can imagine, with a minimum of effort or anxiety. But we live in a clumsy, slow, indirect, material world, where a few concerns arise:
1. The writer has to live — he or she has bills to pay, at least one mouth to feed, and so forth. It would be great, therefore, if the process above could result in some form of recognised remuneration. ‘Getting something transmitted through a series of steps from one heart to another’ needs to pay cash, ideally.
2. What arises as images, emotions, ideas and the like in the writer’s heart have to be formulated into recognisable words in order to be understood by another. No good writing it in a language foreign to the reader, or invented. The work also has to be shaped according to the principles of the craft of writing so that it actually impinges upon readers. (In a world where telepathy was real, this latter step would probably still be required.)
3. There has to be some form of physically recording and transporting the resulting manuscript across space.
4. There needs to exist a mechanism for the broad duplication and transmission of the story to masses of readers.
5. There need to be accessible (physical or electronic) venues so that readers can view the work and make decisions about it.
6. There have to be methods whereby readers can exchange something — usually money — so that they can walk away with copies of the work.
With all this in mind, it’s worth looking at what happens the other way in our little diagram above: yes, a writer’s work, if it follows all of the above successfully, can make it all the way to a reader’s heart — but what comes back towards the writer?
Again, in a non-material world the return flow would consist of admiration or appreciation (if the story was good). This might be directed at the story itself, and, in this non-physical universe, perhaps at the writer too. But in our world, admiration and appreciation barely escape the vicinity of the reader as he or she closes the book: a smile upon a face, a sigh of contentment, a buzz of satisfaction which is scarcely measurable — these are the things which are the direct result of a story travelling all the way through to a reader’s heart.
That’s not going to pay the bills.
On rarer occasions, the reader may exert himself or herself just enough to leave a review. At least then the writer has some chance of perceiving what effect he or she has created. But reviews are infrequent and hard to obtain.
Sales of the book are another measure which is visible by the writer. If a book has had an impact, an invisible word of mouth effect may be engendered: more and more people may take the time to visit bookshops and websites and obtain copies for themselves. The processes leading up to a sale are out of the view of the writer —only the actual sale registers anywhere. It’s not the greatest way of knowing what effect a writer is creating, but at least it shows that something real has occurred -- and at least something useful may eventually get back to the writer. And so we have little choice but to watch booksales as indicators of success.
This field is further muddied by the fact that many other books are selling in the marketplace which lack any real quality. This seems to tarnish the whole sphere of commercial interchange, so that to pursue sales becomes associated with low quality. It’s just the way things are, though. If readers had some way of leaving an automatic review as soon as they had completed a book, we would have a much cleaner and more accurate tool to measure the effects of what we are doing. But they don't.
So how does the writer in this non-telepathic world manage to survive in his or her career of transferring thoughts and feelings from one heart to another? The short answer is that he or she has to be very, very good at the art of writing. Taking material from one’s imagination and pouring it out onto the page and then expecting others to pay for it is not going to travel very far: raw material from the imagination has to be crafted so that it will arrive effectively, firstly at a publisher and secondly at the reader. In fact, the only tool powerful enough to make any difference on this route from writer to reader is craft: craft that shapes a story to have momentum, mystery, morality and meaning to the right degrees so that a publisher and then droves of readers will reach for it, admire it and pay for it.
There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with what’s in any writer’s heart — but neither is there anything intrinsically attractive to readers. Attraction is the result of craft — choices made and shaped by the writer. Those same or similar choices can be made all along the line until the work gets to its proper home: the heart of the reader.
My book How Stories Really Work isolates the basic units involved in crafting stories. Other materials exist too.