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The Secret to Pleasing Readers

Accepted Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time

Accepted – Here I am with friends/fellow fans of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time… I am dressed as an Accepted, a character type from his famous series of books. In the photo I was attending a fan-based event hosted by TarValon.net which was attended by people from around the world.

Since man lived in caves drawing pictures on the walls, since he sat around fires telling tales about what lurked in the night just beyond the edge of the light, and right up until today with TV, movies, and (of course) books… mankind has always loved a good story and just importantly – he has longed to be a storyteller.

For those of us who aspire to be published authors (and most assuredly those of us who wish to do so successfully enough to call it a career) the title of storyteller can be a truly sacred thing.  A mantle granted in ancient times to those with wisdom, entertainment and information to share.  They were a person entrusted with the duty of doling out the latest news and lessons to be learned in the most engaging way possible.  Only those who could meet the expectations of the masses could ever achieve their hearts-desire to be known as a Storyteller and in many ways it’s the same to this very day.

Getting noticed and landing a publishing contract isn’t easy – any aspiring author can tell you that – but even more difficult is that last part:  meeting the expectations of the masses.  Convincing one person or three people in a publishing house that your story has the chops to make it is one (sometimes seemingly impossible task) but getting readers and pleasing those readers is something entirely different.

But I have a secret to share – something that the publishing world hasn’t yet figured out about me and I’m going to share it with you today:  the secret to pleasing readers  *OR* everything I know about successful storytelling I learned from fandoms, rpg, & cosplay.

DO WHAT YOU LOVE

I was just 18 when I first held a seven-die-set … polyhedron dice used to play Dungeons and Dragons.  That day changed me forever.  It was the day I first met people who felt a passion for something as dearly as I did and finally, FINALLY, I didn’t feel like a freak of nature for latching onto something so dearly that it pervaded my every waking moment.  That something for me was, and always will be, acts of the imagination:  writing, acting, and oral storytelling.

And these 20 or so college students in the basement of our University Center weren’t the only ones – as I’d soon learn – not by a VERY LONG shot.  Trips to gaming conventions like Gen-Con were eye openers for me, an awakening to the idea that people with a passion for something didn’t just occasionally talk about it… they immersed themselves into it.

In recent years the world of the “geek” and “nerd” has become trendy and widely known if not accepted.  With Comic-Cons and Renaissance festivals popping up all over the place, with names like Marvel and DC shattering box office records year after year, with cable TV channels like G4 and shows like King of the Nerds and Big Bang Theory – there is probably not a single person on the planet that isn’t aware of the financial might wielded by those who aren’t ashamed to embrace their particular ‘fandom’ or ‘inner-geek.’

So what does all this matter if you’re NOT writing about Sci-Fi or Fantasy?

Fandoms aren’t just for sci-fi or fantasy fans.  And THAT is what you want as a Storyteller.  You can be a writer without them… but if you want to be a successful storyteller in the age of social media, 10 episode seasons, 100s of books published a day on amazon, on-demand-almost-everything; the more rabid and passionate your fans are… the longer and stronger your career as a Successful Storyteller is sure to be.

LOVE THOSE WHO LOVE WHAT YOU LOVE

Lines of people waiting to sign your book.  If you’re like most aspiring authors, you’ve had a moment where you’ve day-dreamed about the book-signing event.  You know the one.  You’re in a book store, you read a chapter or three from your New York Times Bestseller and then you spend the whole day writing your name in book covers until your wrist is sore and your agent has to turn folks away.

Great dream right?  Only, you’re limiting your mind.  Imagine for a moment that you’re in a massive convention hall and there are THOUSANDS of people lined up through the whole room to meet people just like you.  They want a photo with you, they want you to sign their book and to ensure they get a chance to do that before your agent turns them away… they’ll pay for the chance.

If you haven’t been to a convention like San Diego’s Comic Con or Gen-Con you might think I’m exaggerating.  However, I’m not.  Fandoms are a strange and amazing creature but they don’t dedicate themselves so intensely to the unknown person who has chosen to hide themselves under a cloak of anonymity any more.  Gone are the days where an author could hide behind a pen name, never be known by their fans, and expect great sales.  That’s not to say you CAN’T … but the disconnected Storyteller, the one who wants to keep fans at arm’s length, is sure to come off as ungrateful and unlikable by in large.

If they are JUST buying a book, and they are just looking for a moment’s distraction, that will be enough.  However, if you expect them to buy into your brand… into your world and characters… and deeply enough not just to buy a second book but also to share you with others then it has to be YOU as well.

I remember the first time I met someone from White Wolf Publishing.  I happened to be at a gaming convention which was centered on their brand of game books.  I was dressed up as my character and engaged in a scene where I was participating in an oral storytelling contest.  All the players (myself included) had to invent a story to tell right there on the spot.  I was one of the few who, instead of pulling out my character’s sheet (statistics which determined how good my character was at things as opposed to how good *I* am in real life), and I actually told a story.

The room went silent.  There was an energy there that I still yearn for and hope to find again.  And when it was all said and done, this player (who I’d never met before) came up to me and told me how talented he thought I was.  He expressed his amazement in a few poignant sentences and encouraged me to consider it (if I hadn’t already) as a career.  We chatted a bit and when we parted ways, only then did I learn he worked with the good folks at the company I so enjoyed the products of.  I was utterly flabbergasted.  I was also something else – a rabid fan.

I am proud to say that I still collect their books after all these years and at least one of their product lines I’ve made it a mission to own every single product from (ideally in mint condition.)  More than the thousands of dollars I’ve sunk into their books, toys, and games… I’ve introduced dozens of friends to their products and books and THEY have also spent equal amounts of money.  I’ve started two local fan club organizations in two different states and I’ve worked at every level of their fanclub from the local to the global level.

Would I have done that without that meeting?  I’m not sure.  I love their products but that moment is still one of the big ones that stand out in my mind.  Knowing the face behind the products … connecting with that face and feeling valued and respected by them – it turned me into more than consumer.  It made me a proud marketer of their products.

SHARE WHAT YOU LOVE

If you build it, they will come… or something like that.  Finding people who will love what you write starts with finding people who love what you love.  Gathering them together so you have a place to talk to them, honest and open, and ideally can introduce them to your brand of entertainment.

Now, that shouldn’t be a bait and switch situation.  No one likes to sign up for a group that focuses on one fandom only to find it’s really all about being advertised to (and about something totally unrelated) BUT … it’s about sharing YOU.

Opening up to your fans, talking about what you love (and will be writing about) is a way to get them to want to know more about you.

When I was running a local fan club we’d always plan to go to big conventions.  We’d set up chances for people to play games we loved and eventually the players would ask the important question without being prompted:  where can we do this more?  How can we hang out with you guys more?

This isn’t hard.  If you really love what you write about then you’ve got a lot to say about it.  You’re already an expert but you probably don’t realize it.  Don’t be afraid to wave your own ‘geek flag’ proudly.  Whatever your passion is:  romance, sci-fi, fantasy, ya… it’s something others burn for too and they WANT to talk about it WITH YOU.

SHARE WHAT YOU LOVE.

LEGENDS CAN’T BE COPYRIGHTED

Thank God for this.  Imagine a world where children couldn’t wear Disney princess dresses and dance around imagining their prince charming or race around on bikes pretending to be in the Millennium Falcon on a run against the Death Star – what a sad and dark place our childhoods would have been.

Today fandoms aren’t just for children.  The world of imagination isn’t closed off after we pass through the unforgiving doors of puberty.  Men and women of all ages dress as their favorite characters and write fiction set in the worlds they loved best.

The greatest of Successful Storytellers learn the most bitterly strange truth of all:  if you are fortunate enough to be able to tell, not just a story but a Legend, you find that it will never again be yours alone.  Legends are far more powerful than the pen (or computer) that brought them to life.  Legends live beyond their original form, are told and retold by every generation after their first storyteller gave them life.  And while some might scream and call their lawyers at the first sign of their fans running wild with what once belonged to them alone… modern storytellers are finally learning this truth that all the greats of old knew all along.  Great stories can never BELONG to anyone.

And again, Thank God for that!  I cut my teeth writing fan fiction for Scarecrow and Mrs. King (80s TV Show) and later on in life for Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan… I’ve dressed as my favorite characters, done artwork based on the worlds of my favorite books, and taken on the roles of the best character types in dozens of role-playing games – live action, table top, and play-by-post.

Each of these has helped to shape me and other future authors.  We’ve learned the craft of not just proper writing (because the act of reading and writing does make one better at that) but of better storytelling.  What makes a story compelling and more than that what makes it GREAT.

Imitating what I loved has made me better at it and one day, I sincerely hope that I’m fortunate enough to have other young people writing fan fiction, cos-playing as, and role-playing as my characters in my worlds.  Not only because I’m certain that it’s going to be what makes me successful monetarily – but then and only then will I truly believe I’ve earned the right to be known as a Successful Storyteller.

2 comments on “The Secret to Pleasing Readers

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