Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Two Kinds of Readers, Two Kinds of Writers

This very insightful piece came to me via email the other day.  I want to thank Mr. Sackett for allowing me to post this to my blog.


When you are beginning as a writer, it's a good idea to decide what kind of writer you're going to be. The kind of writer you are will define what kind of reader will be appealed to by your work. And the kind of writer you are is probably determined by what kind of reader you are.

Take me, for instance.

I started out loving detective stories. I was a precocious reader; I can't have been older than six when I read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet. It gave me such horrible nightmares that my parents forbade me from reading any more Conan Doyle.

Luckily, my parents had short memories. By the time I was in high school, I bought a one-volume collection of Sherlock Holmes stories and read them all. I even joined a society of Holmes addicts, called I think the Baker Street Irregulars, which published a journal to which I subscribed.

I moved from Holmes to other detective-story writers. My two favorites were Raymond Chandler and John Dickson Carr -- and two more dissimilar writers could hardly be found. But I read widely among other detective-story authors as well. Since I wanted to write, I started trying to write detective stories and even finished a novel while I was in college.

Suddenly, however, I discovered that in reading many detective stories I was reading the same story over and over. The names and places were different, but all the stories had the same structure: crime-detection-solution. And I was getting bored.

Then one day, looking over the magazines in the rack at the drug store, I was attracted by the cover of Amazing Stories. Curious, I bought a copy and read it. I was hooked by a narrative by Richard S. Shaver, purporting to be a true account of alien beings living underground in the Earth. In common with many readers who wrote in to the magazine, I didn't really believe it, but it certainly was circumstantial -- and, more important, unlike the detective stories I had been reading. And thus I began to explore science fiction to see what it was like.

What I discovered was that the writers of science fiction wrote nearly every kind of story there was except romance. Robert A. Heinlein wrote future history and four-dimensional geometry. A.E. van Vogt attacked racism in Slan by dealing with genetic mutation, exposed the narrowness of academic specialties in The Voyage of the Space Beagle, retold the history of the Roman Empire in The Wizard of Linn, and introduced general semantics into a world of non-Aristotelian logic in The World of Null-A. Isaac Asimov explored the basic rules of robotics. And while most writers in the field celebrated the advances of science and technology, Ray Bradbury was pointing out that these advances had a dark side.

There were some basic story structures, but whereas detective fiction had only one, science-fiction had several: what-if and if-this-goes-on were two that appealed to me. So I began trying to write science fiction. My first published story was based on Plato's allegory of the cave, translated into an interplanetary future. I had some modest successes; one of my short novels, "Hail to the Chief," a what-if story using political science as the science, has been anthologized three times.

From this experience I discovered that I was the kind of writer who didn't want to write the same story twice; and even though all but one of my published novels is what I call a fictional biography, the biographies are of three different kinds of people who lead three different kinds of lives. My forthcoming novel, Rabbi Yeshua, is a fictional biography of still another kind of person. Therefore I will appeal to readers who do not want to read the same story over again.

Unfortunately for me, there are fewer readers of that type than of the other. The best-selling fiction books may be in different genres, but the bestsellers in each genre are all built on the same pattern, showing that what most readers really enjoy is finding a story they feel comfortable with and reading it over and over again.

When I was in Thailand, my next-door neighbor was an Englishman, part owner and plant manager of a company that manufactured a part used in cell phone towers. He moved away and, knowing that I enjoyed reading, gave me a big box of paperback books that he was through with. They were all spy novels with "No. 1 New York Times Best Seller" printed on the cover. I read several of them by different authors and was dismayed to discover that they were all the same story, just with different names and places. I gave the box to a young lady I knew who wanted to read books in English to improve her grasp of that language.

This is not to say that there was not a great deal of ingenuity in those spy stories. A writer has to be ingenious to keep telling the same story over and over again and make it seem fresh and new every time For that matter, thinking back to my detective-story days, John Dickson Carr was fiendishly ingenious.

My conclusion is that if you are the kind of reader who enjoys reading the same story over and over again, you will be able to write bestsellers if you learn the formula of your genre, reproduce it, and keep on reproducing it with ingenuity. But if you are the kind of reader who likes to read a different story every time, you will be happier writing a different story every time you start to write; but you will not be successful if you try to write bestsellers. Many science-fiction writers are excellent, but not many science-fiction novels have achieved the New York Times Best Seller list.

Thanks again to Mr. Sackett for submitting such a great piece to my blog.

You can find him online at:

1 comment:

  1. Through the whole post I kept thinking of Louis laAmour's Sackett series, which I loved in my teens.


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