What Do Writers Want?
What do writers want?
The first thing that might occur to anyone attempting to answer this question is ‘help in writing stories’. But many writers feel that this is the last thing they need help with. ‘Being a writer’ to them is a very personal and very private activity, a zone in which something almost mystically creative takes place and some kind of ‘inner self’ puts words together on a page or screen. This is a secret sanctum for those writers, into which no one is admitted, not even those whom the writer loves deeply, though they may glimpse the work that emerges before anyone else.
The next thing that might possibly answer the question ‘What do writers want?’ might be services like editing or proofreading. But with the advent of the internet and many tools and devices that were unthinkable a few years ago, many writers now assume that, because they have spell-checked the words using an app or some such mechanism, little else is needed. As for editing - having someone read the story and suggest changes - see above: that would mean allowing a stranger into the sanctum. ‘Editing’ is viewed with hostility by some writers as an unwanted and even unnecessary evil, while others tolerate it in order to get into the hallowed halls of a traditional publisher.
‘What do writers want?’ might also be answered by the words ‘help with marketing’, especially in these days of independent publishing, when a manuscript can make it all the way from a writer’s mind to the page, then all the way to the internet as a book, only to sit there, untouched and unbought thereafter. But even this apparently insurmountable obstacle - the yawning gap between the work and the reader which opens up at the last minute and swallows so much of a writer's time, effort and anxiety - is not something that many writers seek help with. This might be because they understand it so little that they are totally backed off from it; it might be that, because they have had one or two sales, they can convince themselves that it is ‘just a matter of time’ before they achieve commercial success or that some new technique will come along soon to ‘crack’ marketing for them once and for all. Or perhaps they have spent so much money on advertising already that they simply can’t afford to seek help. Whatever it is, even ‘marketing advice’ doesn’t seem to answer the question ‘What do writers want?’
In the end, the thing that writers seem to want most of all is to be read. That this involves all of the above - putting an attractive story together, getting it edited into shape, having it marketed effectively to the reading public - seems to escape the attention of many of them. And so we meet a paradox at the heart of what it is to be a writer: a private, personal, almost sacred act, into which the eyes and ears and voices of others must not intrude, must in the end, to reach full fruition, become a public, impersonal and secular act, into which those eyes and ears and voices must be invited to become active participants. The manuscript typed late at night in the quiet of one’s room, never shown to anyone, full of an inner passion which the outer world must never glimpse, must become something alive and exposed in the open marketplace, shown to absolutely everyone, in the hope that its message communicates to the masses. The act of writing, initially an introversion whether the writer identifies as an introvert or not, must become an act of extroversion in the extreme; its sacred nature must become secular if the writer is to make money from it.
So in the full cycle of writing, from inner world to outer universe, there is a kind of sacrilege which takes place - a violation or misuse of what is regarded as sacred must occur if there is to be a public result. How does something which is essentially introverted become extroverted to that degree?
In seven stages:
1. At first, a work exists only in a writer’s mind and heart, as a swirling and shifting gathering of notions.
2. Then the writer makes an effort to shape these vagaries into a story, but is often daunted at the massive effort involved.
3. If something is eventually committed to paper or screen, the writer may begin to see its true or hidden shape and mould it into a form which can be shown to others.
4. So far, everything has been done in private. Then come the crossroads: a decision must be made to admit the other, the beta reader or editor or even proofreader, into the operation. If this is decided against, then chances are that the work will sink back into the introverted zone whence it came; if progress is chosen, the work must pass into the outer world. The writer needs courage here, because the fundamental switch from inner to outer worlds has started.
5. Then the work must grow and develop and be read by others, with participation being key. Readers must absorb the work and in doing so be permitted to arrive at their own opinion. This is normally when a work is in the hands of a publisher and changes can still be made. Editing, if done properly, can suggest the modifications which the writer was too close to the tale to see were needed, producing a better, stronger story as a result.
6. There are two more stages: the work at some point breaks free of the writer, existing as an independent text: this is the point of publication. No major changes are now possible. Readers can acquire it and read it without ever knowing the path which it has taken to arrive in their hands.
7. Finally, the work influences others. It stands alone now, attractive in its own right, part of a wider backdrop of literature, and has the power to inspire and beget imitation.
A certain amount of courage, growth and determination are needed all the way along, but especially at point 4 and beyond. Writing becomes no longer purely personal but participatory. Many writers are unable or unwilling to proceed beyond point 4, and of course that is entirely up to them. But the recognition that, in order for a work to become public, it must involve participants other than the writer, is key.