Thursday, April 2, 2015

Learning from the Vagaries

Zestful Blog Post #99

I've looked back through my blog and am surprised to find I haven’t shared the story of the genesis of Left Field. I kind of can’t believe it because I've told it a number of times to audiences, as a parable about the vagaries of connecting with readers.

At the 2010 Left Coast Crime convention I found myself on a panel called “Writing Gay Characters”, along with Laurie King, Christopher Rice, L.J. Sellers, and moderator Pat Brown. We’d been scheduled for 8:30 Saturday morning, the godawfullest time slot of any convention, due to the fact that everybody’s either hung over or sleeping in from Friday night carousing.

So we all straggle in with our Starbucks, and lo and behold about 30 people came to hear us. While all of us had written GLBT characters, it seemed that Chris and I were the only authentically queer authors on the panel, so we more or less hijacked the discussion. Come question time, someone asked, “What do gay and lesbian readers want? What are they looking for in the novels they read?”

 [L to R: Brown, King, Rice, Sims, Sellers. Photo by Marcia.]

Chris gave an intelligent answer based on his experience, then I decided to speak aloud something I’d been turning over in my mind.

I talked about having used a women’s bar for the setting and focus of my first novel, Holy Hell, and then setting Damn Straight at ‘the Dinah’ (as it was popularly known), an LPGA golf tournament and magnet for thousands of lesbian fans and revelers. (When I attended the tournament to do research for the book, accompanied by Marcia, we passed some time in a breakfast restaurant with another diner, who related tales of the parties she’d attended the night before. When we mentioned we were on our way to watch the day’s round of golf, she said blankly, “There’s golf?”)

Both of those books were well received by critics and readers. But, I related, I did hear from some readers who told me they wished somebody would write books that weren't necessarily set in some major lesbo-scene, but simply featured a lesbian protagonist going about her business in an ordinary setting, solving crimes or whatever.

OK, I thought, I’d like that too. So I wrote Lucky Stiff, in which protagonist Lillian Byrd solves the mystery of her parents’ long-ago deaths, with the help of her childhood gay-guy friend Duane. Then I wrote Easy Street, where Lillian brings to justice a cute little thief and murderer, with the action ranging all around the U.S.

Reviewers with good literary taste loved the books and understood the essentially subversive, unconventional nature of my writing. “Her best yet!” they chorused. But guess what? The books didn't resonate so well with my general readership, many of whom chorused, “She’s lost her way!” Sales lagged.

Good God.

“So the lessons I learned were several,” I told my audience in Los Angeles that morning. “One, what readers say they want and what they really want might be two vastly different things. Two, an author should be chary of trying to accommodate readers’ requests anyway. And three, my next Lillian Byrd novel absolutely has to be about—” I paused for dramatic effect, “—softball!”

Chris and the audience laughed so hard I feared everybody would start squirting Starbucks through their noses. That was the most gratifying moment of that whole convention for me, and from then on I knew for sure that Left Field lay somewhere in my future.

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  1. Elizabeth. I've been enjoying your blogs about the development of your writing career. This one was especially interesting. I've read advice to picture my typical reader when I write. I've also read that worrying about what your readers will think about what you write can stifle creativity. Sometimes I've wondered if I was putting in too much about my character's Catholic faith. But, if the readers can't even tell you what they really want, then I guess it goes back to being true to your self.

    1. Jerry, you got it right! I might add that sales talk louder than pretty much anything, when it comes to figuring out what readers like.

  2. I know this is crazy, but when I first read the title of this article, which I reached via Facebook, I thought it was ZESTFUL WRITING: Learning from the Vaginas. I immediately clicked on it because I had *no* clue how you'd pull off a blog about that. Imagine my surprise then to see I'd misread........I know, I know, I *really* do need new glasses.

    1. Perhaps next week I'll discuss Learning from the Vaginas. Because, hey, there are lessons there... (Thanks for dropping in anyway, Lori!)

  3. Reading this article I'm reminded of my love of Asian dramas. I love them bc I can get my rom-com fix and they're only one series long. So my favorite couple doesn't spend forever getting together. But what directors/producers/writers tend to do (mostly in Korean dramas) is that they cater too much to their viewership. And what usually starts off as a great story/drama all goes down hill. So yeah, sometimes readers don't know what they want. Or what they'll like may not necessarily be what they want. It's just best to go with JK Rowling -"In truth, I never consider the audience for whom I'm writing. I just write what I want to write."

    1. Interesting about the Asian dramas, Lidy. When living in San Francisco, Marcia and I would sometimes watch Japanese TV and try to supply English dubbing based on what we guessed what was going on. "Do you love him?" "Yes. Very much."....

  4. Yes, I would also be interested to learn more about how sales talk louder than pretty much anything in your upcoming "Learning from the Vaginas" post.

    Fooling aside, I'm really enjoying all the aspects of your writing that you are sharing. And extra points for using "chary" in your post, which beats out "spurious" for the word that I've been most delighted to read today.


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