Nameless Postscript: Talking With Twenty Five Hundred
-- Alex Haley
(NOTE: This is a link to a revised and expanded version of this postcript.)
Nameless Postscript: Talking With Twenty Five Hundred
I'm a blogger.
There's no other way to define it anymore, really. I'm not a published writer, never have been, potentially never will be -- never say die and all, but I have a steady job and I've made my peace with the rest.
But according to the statistics, 2500 people read my journal regularly. I doubt all of them actually do, some journals being long-dead and others being infrequently used, but adding in the people who don't friend and who don't have journals themselves, I would imagine it balances out.
This is interesting, because it means I am capable of asking for the view of a reading public without any of the fetters placed on a professional published writer, who trusts an editor and only gets to hear criticism from a readership after the book has been printed (which must be very frustrating). There are disadvantages, of course, but they mainly involve money and prestige, which aren't huge factors in my life. The advantages, in the process of putting a novel up, are much more important.
It wouldn't seem like serialising a novel, chapter by chapter, would be all that different from posting any other form of online fiction. I think the difference is in the attitude. Most of what I write is reasonably off-the-cuff and intended to entertain; I was never specifically asking for serious consideration and criticism, though I welcomed it if I got it. With Nameless, I said from the start that this was a book I intended to publish, a completed book that I wanted feedback on. It put people in a different mindset. They treated the story as a real book they wanted to discuss and pick apart as if they were reading it at a book club.
I don't know that a published writer has ever tried putting a "finished" work in front of a group of discerning readers and saying, "Tell me what's wrong." They can't afford to; they can't give away for free what they sell as a living. Throughout the process, people have said to me, isn't this weird? Have you ever seen anything like this? and I haven't.
What we did wouldn't even have been possible before the internet, or if it was possible would have been heinously expensive -- though the interaction between literature and cyberspace is a different essay entirely, though relevant. The point is that very few writers have ever overhauled a published work because of public criticism. Stephen King released an extended-cut of The Stand, and Marion Zimmer Bradley apparently rewrote a book she'd written twenty years before, but those are exceptions and not quite the same. George Lucas may have revamped Star Wars, but I'm pretty sure he did it over the protest of his fans, not in response to them.
Giving literature away for free and then expecting and embracing criticism is not a tradition of any kind. It is not something that is systematic. It is not something that is done in the literary world. I didn't plan this, I just stumbled into it, but here it is. It happened. I wanted to share a story and see what everyone thought of it, but instead I opened up a dialogue with a conscious readership about structure and interpretation and the author-reader relationship, about how to rewrite a book based on the thoughts and feelings of readers. I'm blown away by it all, and so pleased that people felt no need to pull punches. A mediocre book will be a really good book because of it. I'm a measurably better writer than I was two weeks ago, because of it.
Chapter by chapter, people told me what was wrong -- sometimes something as small as a mis-spelled word, sometimes a major structural issue with the book. I learned that my dialogue to action ratio is off, that my characterisation suffers somewhat (likely due to having trained in fanfic, where you don't need to build the characters because they're already there), and that sometimes my cryptic arcs aren't immediately obvious enough to draw a reader in. The ultimate importance of the first chapter in a book was never lost on me, but now I understand better how to build something immediate: not everyone is going to trust a writer long enough to get to the good stuff, and a relationship with the reader has to be forged very early.
Criticism is not something you can accept wholesale, of course. You have to pick and choose, but your readers know which way the wind is blowing. If a dozen people notice a single flaw, then it's not a single flaw, it's a problem that needs to be fixed. There is some give and take, and it's a wise child who knows when to listen, but overwhelmingly the advice has been good advice, because it's readers giving it. Readers know what throws them out of a book or why they don't trust a character or theme.
I think it takes a great deal of self-possession to undergo something like this, for that very reason: you are never going to please all of the people all of the time and if you try you will end up with a very bad book. At the same time, you still need to appreciate all viewpoints. You might not listen to what someone says, but you need to take it into account, process it, and thank them for it. They are offering you their honest opinion, which is a precious thing to a writer. Or should be.
I also learned what appealed to people -- what turn of phrase could catch a reader's eye, what subtle meanings people would draw from what I'd said. Very heady stuff.
At one point, in chapter eight, I got a lot of positive feedback. And I was, of course, thrilled, but I was also perplexed, because I hated most of the chapter. What struck me most of all about this process was that when I said to the readers "This is weird, I didn't like this chapter" people responded with criticism that I hadn't got before. This seemed to me to be part of trusting my instincts, but also a result of the situation, that I could say "Hey wait, I didn't like this" and get a response that paralleled my thoughts but offered insight I hadn't had. It validates my instincts to an extent, but also shows that if a writer is speaking to a readership about the book it's a different process from speaking to a readership through a book. Chapter eight only had one major flaw, but it was a serious one, and I could go to the readers and find out what their expectations were, what they wanted to see but didn't. Eight chapters into a book you generally know what you want from it.
Ironically, it's hard to articulate how I feel about the whole thing. People worried sometimes that I was hurt, that the criticism was crushing, but I didn't feel that way at all. I was too overwhelmed by what was happening, by what a unique experience it was for me. I felt like I was looking at some kind of inching step into the future of publishing, where a real dialogue could go on between a writer and a reader and that dialogue, rather than a writer's monologue, could be what went into the final print. We beta-tested my book. How weird and wonderful is that?
When I coined the term extribulum, which is a written work that has its first incarnation purely in digital media and is only printed as hardcopy afterwards, I was just screwing around with a science-fiction idea. Now I think there is an actual place for extribuli.
This is what happens when one person talks and twenty-five hundred listen...and then talk back. I could not be more proud.