Writing Right with Dmitri: Messages in Bottles
The other day, I was browsing around the internet, looking up old reviews of the 1990s sci-fi TV series Deep Space Nine. Recently, we've been rewatching the series – it's well-made, and has a lot to teach – and I wondered how my personal response to the series in 2014 compared to the series' reception in the 1990s. I started reading a review blog from the time, and found a treasure trove of what my German professors called Rezeptionstheorie. The blog writer has kept his site so meticulously in the last two decades that it is still possible for people to carry on a dialogue about the individual episodes. The ongoing discussion, almost 15 years after the end of the broadcasts, is a fascinating record of changing attitudes and opinions.
You can read a sample review here. The episode discussed is called 'Far Beyond the Stars'. The storyline concerns the space station captain, Ben Sisko, who finds himself in an alternate reality in which he is a science fiction magazine writer in the early 1950s, on Earth. The episode's attraction is that the regular cast, rather than appearing in prosthetic makeup as aliens of the far future, portray ordinary humans during the McCarthy era, a period much weirder than the one they usually act in. Sisko, who in 'real life' merely has to cope with being a human amongst Klingons, Cardassians, Ferengi, et al, is now marginalised because he is African American. It was food for thought in 1998. It's still food for thought in 2014. Read the comments and follow the discussion.
Elsewhere, I read a comment by the series' creator that said, 'In 30 years, they'll get what we're talking about.' Obviously, these people were writing for the future, and not only for the Friday-night crowd on the network. Which made me think: who do we write for? And how does that question inform the way we write? This, too, is food for thought.
If you're writing for money, you have a problem, aside from getting them to honour your invoices. Your 'reader' is the client: an editor, an instructional designer, an ad company, etc. You have to write what they want to read. You don't have a choice about it. So you ask intelligent questions about what they want, and try to match their needs. End of story. That's the world of 'work for hire'.
On this site, though, we're all volunteers. We need to keep that in mind. We write what we write because we choose to write it. Now, some of us, like your Editor here, volunteer to try to write encouraging Stuff, just to help the process along. But still, I'm just like you: I write because I want to. And I choose my subjects..and my audience. And thereby hangs another thought.
Who are we writing for? First of all, we know this material will be around for a long while. The internet's established now. It has archives and such. We're not writing on water, though we are writing on light. So we don't write merely for today. We aren't the 'trendy' people. We write for the future, so that, with luck, somebody will find our stuff in 15 years and go, 'Wow! I didn't know that.'
But you can't write for everybody. Somewhere out there, there's a reader who's saying, 'Oh, bosh. This is uninteresting. This isn't what I would have written. It's puerile, I don't get the humour, yadda, yadda…' Forget that reader. You're writing for the one who says, 'Hey, yeah! I get it!' So what are you looking for?
You're writing for the person who:
- Wants to go on the journey you want to take them on.
- Responds to the frequency of your narrative.
- Needs to know what you want to tell.
- Doesn't know it yet, but is ready to ask the same questions you are.
Now, that doesn't mean that you should write anything you like, any way you like, and then shrug off criticism by saying, 'That's what I meant to say. Someday, some other genius will discover me.' Nah. Not saying that at all. That way, you turn into Enoch Soames, the bad poet with the time-travel death wish. That's a horrible fate. Avoid it.
Avoid that fate by making sure that you listen to the readers you do get. Not everybody will find that your volunteer ideas speak to their condition. But listen to them all – the ones who like your work, and those who don't. Decide what you should change to communicate better with those who will listen. And don't be discouraged by the ones who give you short shrift. Let them move on to the voices they can hear.
Does this make sense at all? What I'm trying to say is, don't be discouraged. You're not writing for money around here, because there's none to be had. So you must be writing for the pure joy of communicating. Just realise that you're communicating across the timeline, both now and in the future. Don't be put off by faint praise, or unfair criticism, or no praise at all. Keep working at the craft for the satisfaction it brings – and for that reader in the future, who'll find your message in the internet bottle and be blessed.
Have a safe, happy, and writing-filled new year, my friends!