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Risingshadow has the honour of publishing a guest post by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro.

About the author

Alvaro is co-author, with Robert Silverberg, of When The Blue Shift Comes and Traveler of Worlds: Conversations with Robert Silverberg, which is currently eligible for Hugo nomination in the Best Related category.

Alvaro's more than thirty stories have appeared in magazines like Analog, Nature, Lightspeed, Galaxy's Edge, Lackington's, Farrago's Wainscot and Neon, as well as anthologies such as The Mammoth Book of the Adventures of Moriarty, The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Tales, The 2015 Young Explorer's Adventure Guide, Cyber World, This Way to the End Times, Humanity 2.0, An Alphabet of Embers and The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016. Alvaro's essays, reviews and interviews have appeared in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The First Line, Asimov's, Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Foundation, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Intergalactic Medicine Show. He also edits the roundtable blog for Locus.

Links

GUEST POST: Including the Reader by Alvaro Zinos-Amaro

Asking an author the question “For whom did you write this book?” can elicit interesting answers. On one end of the spectrum we may get an answer of this sort: “Above all, for myself,” a writer might say, “but I’m delighted that readers enjoyed it too.” (A stronger version of this goes something like: “Because I believed deeply in this book, and wrote it genuinely to please myself, readers responded to my passion and were also, in turn, pleased by it.”)

The idea of an intended audience intersects with the notion of a book’s purpose, its reason for being. In some cases, the blunt reality—though writers don’t always admit to it publicly—is that a writer accepted a project because he or she needed to pay bills and a reasonable contract was offered. This would appear to represent the end of the spectrum opposite to the one just mentioned above (I say “would appear” because I believe it’s a false dichotomy): “I wrote this, above all, because I was fulfilling a professional assignment.” A baker receives an order for a specific type of cake and proceeds to fashion it; a furniture designer gets a call asking for a particular piece and proceeds to bring it to life; an author receives an order for a certain type of book and proceeds to craft it into existence.

It’s possible for the above scenarios to line up, so that an author is commissioned to write precisely the type of book she would have written for herself, out of sheer passion or madness, even if no such commercial impetus existed. Or maybe a contract is offered for a “dream” project, like writing in a franchise near and dear to the reader’s heart. For writers with long, commercially successful careers, opportunities for “artistic exploration” may be available, though there are often strings attached (“You can write X, if you deliver Y as well”). For writers of series, the desire by fans for another installment may be enough motivation for the writer. Alternately, the writer may grow weary of the whole affair: see the fictional Paul Sheldon in Stephen King’s Misery.

If a writer’s primary reader of the book is him or herself, then there is, by definition, a narrow vision of the book’s readership, at least in the conceptual or creative stages. That’s fine. If a writer is hoping to reach a particular readership familiar with or even loyal to a previously imagined world or existing franchise, the intended readership will be a lot larger. Many books, I think, are created in an in-between landscape, where the writer’s overall voice or style or aesthetic may have become enough of a “brand” for the readers simply to want something else by that same author, or perhaps a writer has aspirations for the types of readers a book should attract, but those hopes are remolded as the book begins to take shape, and then only partially fulfilled when it’s released into the wild.

In the case of Traveler of Worlds, my book of interviews with science fiction Grand Master Robert Silverberg, I wanted to create a document that would provide insight into Silverberg’s mind. As a result, my hoped-for readership is folks who are interested in the mind of a legendary science fiction writer, one deeply respected and admired by his peers, a writer who has helped mold and redefine the very genre he’s been a part of. But Silverberg is such an articulate, erudite person that the categories of reader multiply. In the book he shares his detailed thoughts on subjects like art, history, movies, food, travel, the writing life and the ageing process. Not entirely surprisingly, then, I’ve had people with little interest in science fiction tell me they’ve enjoyed the book.

So I had a pretty good idea, going in, of my desired readership. How did that affect the creative process?

My approach, having established who the probable or ideal readers of the book might be, was to envision the kind of book I’d want to read, since I am interested in the mind of my subject, well-versed in his work, and I’m also interested in the topics I just listed. But that’s a sample size of one. To prevent the project from becoming solipsistic or too narrow, I decided to include “the reader” in a very specific way: namely, by leveraging social media.

Once I had garnered interest in the book from a publisher, I created a Facebook page, back in October 2015, announcing the book, and soliciting questions for Bob Silverberg directly from his fans. I promised to include these questions, and Bob’s answers, in the final product. Because Silverberg is considered by some as a somewhat aloof or even unapproachable figure, I thought this would be a fun way to facilitate access to him, and show fans my appreciation for their interest by including their names in the text of the book.

I was excited by the responses I received, which were manageable in number and varied in subject matter. I dedicated part of a chapter to addressing them and it stimulated some fun conversation with Bob, drawing out anecdotes and opinions I would have otherwise missed. Including the audience in the project clearly helped, in this particular case, make it a better book. It was also fun to provide progress updates, all the way up to the book’s publication in August 2016, via the same page.

When writing fiction, it may not be possible to be inclusive of the audience in such a direct manner. But there are creative ways of going about it, such as Tuckerization or the consultation with fans or subject-matter experts on certain fine plot points.

Whatever the scenario, I believe the question of intended readership is a useful one to ask oneself at the start of the creative process, even if only to affirm that one has no immediate answer. The follow-up question—if these are my intended readers, how inclusive should I be of them?—may be just as tricky, if not trickier.

And figuring out the answer can be just as rewarding.

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