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November 6, 2015

Writing for the Fan(s)

by Chris

With book sales steadily approaching double digits, I sometimes—just sometimes—wonder why I do what I do, or why I started in the first place. Motivation, I think, is an elusive beast for many writers—frequently hunted and rarely caught. It’s easy to claim that you write just to write, for yourself or to improve your craft, but I believe that secretly, most writers write to be read. It’s human nature to seek validation for what we create, and the wider the range of that validation—the larger the audience—the easier it is to believe that what we’ve created has some kind of value, some kind of worth.

Of course, it isn’t easy to become widely read, as I’ve written before. Publishing, distributing and marketing your work is no easy task, and even then, the odds are overwhelmingly against you. A quick Google search reveals some depressing numbers: if a person read a different book every day for 70 years, they would make it through roughly 0.02% of all the books ever published. If you distributed all those books evenly to every person in the world, only about 50 people would get yours. And then they might not read it.

Against numbers like these, it can feel like there can be no triumph, no winning. But then, art was never really about the numbers. (Except for fractals. Fractals are about the numbers.) If what you create has the ability to touch the life of even a single person, is it not then, perhaps—just maybe—worth it?

I recently had the chance to watch someone read a pivotal scene in my book. (If this sounds weird, you should try it sometime.) The person in question is a colleague at work who started with us recently. Probably the first thing I noticed about him was the Deathly Hallows pendant he wore permanently around his neck. The second was the battered and worn copies of Harry Potter that were always within arm’s reach. Was this an opportunity to pitch my fantasy novel to a clear fan of the genre?

After a short conversation, I learned that reading was far more than a hobby for him. During an oppressively religious upbringing, the books his aunt surreptitiously supplied him with kept him going. In a way, Harry Potter saved his life. I was saddened, and inspired, and more than a little discouraged; how could my paltry book possibly complete with such lofty standards? Still, I told him about The Redemption of Erâth, and offered him a copy: his enthusiasm and gratitude alone were worth it.

In fact, I expected him to read a few pages and shelve it; I know I’m no Rowling. I thought perhaps I’d get some generic platitude about it in a week or two, and that would be the end of it. I wouldn’t have been disappointed. Instead, within a few days my book had become the default lunchtime reading material whether I was there or not, and I watched as he voraciously devoured page after page. I admit to feeling a little bit of embarrassment, and no small measure of pride: could it be that he really like it?

Then one day I walked in to the break area as he was reading, and saw from the chapter heading that he was about to read through one of the most pivotal scenes in the book. It comes about two-thirds of the way into the book, and (without giving too much away) involves the very unexpected death of a major character. In fact, this scene is what sets in motion the events of the rest of the entire series. I don’t think he saw me, and so I sat down quietly and watched as he paged ever closer to the end of the chapter.

It so happens that you don’t fully see what’s happened until the very last paragraph, which in the paperback edition falls on a page of its own. I saw him turn the page; I watched his eyes scan to the last word. I realized I was terrified. He paused for a moment—and then, quite suddenly, flipped back a page and read it all again. And again. Still without seeing me, he looked up into empty space. “Wait … what?” he uttered.

I imagine I felt somewhat like Rowling must have felt when her editor read Deathly Hallows for the first time. Giddy and triumphant at having elicited such a response, I bizarrely also felt guilty, horrified and ashamed. It seemed like I had genuinely just upset someone.

Then he saw me. Eyes blazing, he cried, “What did you do?”

“I’m sorry!” I blurted. “I didn’t mean to!”

“No,” he said. “It’s brilliant!”

A few days later, he came to me. He put a hand on my shoulder. “When’s the next one coming out?” is all he asked.

In fact, the second book has been languishing in edit hell for months, and although I originally intended to release it in December, it’s looking less and less likely that that’s going to happen. But my friends, if ever I needed validation, this was it. I found my motivation. I have my reason to carry on.

I don’t need an audience of thousands. I will write for my fan.

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