A Better Model of What a Writer Should Do
The Game Has Changed and Maybe That's Awesome
It’s a good time to be me. The words are flying off my fingertips. I’m writing better and with more ease than ever before. Not only do I feel like I really figured out some things about the creative process, I also feel like I’m learning at a faster rate. Which is good, because things are changing faster than they ever have. For everybody.
Which got me to thinking. What is the job of a fiction writer? Not what I was told the job was. Not what I saw in some movie. And not what the job used to be 50 or even 5 years ago. What’s the job right now?
Is it writing books?
I don’t think so. I think books are an output of what a writer does. And for many, many years books were the only way to transmit a writer’s output, so it is very easy to get confused about what the real output is.
Is it writing stories?
Well, if you’re writing fiction, I’d have to say yeah. It’s writing stories. But it seems like there’s something beyond the stories. More fundamental.
A writer makes people’s brains light up.
That’s the product. A juicy and satisfying chemical reaction that takes place, first, between people’s ears.
You can argue that good writers do this in a very specific way that grants escape and some kind of catharsis. I don’t care what theory you use, my point here is that my job is to create an experience and the written word is that way that experience is delivered.
Maybe nobody wants a novel?
Musicians make music, but that music creates a deep and meaningful experience for the listener. Nobody wants the record. And maybe nobody really wants the music. Maybe they want the endorphins. So I’m trying to be thoughtful about medium vs. the real product.
Because you don’t want a book, a podcast, or a Substack post. What you want, I think, is deep and thoughtful involvement in a fictional world. Ideally one that is ever-expanding and evolving.
A stream of story.
My goal as a writer/creator is the same as a TV show, or a series of movies:
To people hooked
Give them meaning
Lately, I’ve been working on problem #1. Because the better I am at solving problem #1 the more successful I can be at solving problem #2. Every other problem is of significantly lesser importance than problem #1. But when people talk about books and writing they talk about everything but problem #1. Which is weird.
To Make a Customer
Mickey Spillane famously said, “I don’t have readers, I have customers. And that’s better because a customer is your friend.” Peter Drucker wrote, “A business only has two core functions. To make a customer and to innovate. Everything else can be outsourced.”
So what’s the untapped market and what’s the innovation?
The Innovation: Maybe I Don’t Want Readers?
Lately, I’ve been thinking that I don’t want readers or customers. Maybe what I really want is an almighty shitload of collaborators.
What I see people spending tremendous amounts of time, money and energy on — are characters they love in fictional worlds that are ever-expanding and changing. Think the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Or a very successful TV show. Or a massive series of books. Or, and this is, by sheer hours spent, a far more deep medium than all of those: video games.
And I don’t just think that people want to merely consume a lot of content. What I think they want is to be involved. They want content that reacts to them. Maybe challenging them, maybe soothing them, but not content that acts like they don’t exist.
Look at the time people spend tearing apart the trailer for the latest installment of Mandalorian. Endlessly discussing what it means. What would be cool. What would ruin it. What should be done. What absolutely shouldn’t.
Think of the satisfaction that comes from an after-movie discussion with smart friends, or really good book group.
The opaque way that authors have produced books throughout most of history discourages these kind of things. It’s all been behind a veil. What I’ve been thinking about now is how to use technology to write stories in a way that allows readers behind the veil and involves them in the process without wrecking the process.
A Concrete Example
Think of it this way. If you want another Game of Thrones book, George R.R. Martin is really something of a monster. (I mean I think he’s under no obligation to produce one, but it’s frustrating.) But how much do you think superfans of George R.R. Martin would enjoy (and pay for) an interview discussion of Martin talking about what he’s thinking about doing with the last book in the series? Even if it’s most of it is him struggling? Even if most of it is discarded and never actually made into the book he put out?
Or, what if ol’ George has lost control of his universe. And it’s all too big for him to figure out how to resolve all the plot ends faithfully and well. And what if the job is too big for one editor to make sense of?
George could say to his fans, I need an outline of everything. Here’s a wiki. Now you couldn’t have that open to everybody because, as Tom Segura so aptly said, “Some people suck,” but if he knew who his 1000 best fans were — more collaborators than fans — how fast do you think that wiki would be filled with good information?
The Way Forward
Which brings me to the three pyramid diagrams at the beginning of this post. It used to be that a writer would write a book and a reader would buy it and that was it. Now people, like you, my fine paying subscribers, support and have a closer relationship with the work. And, it seems like, the more that happens, the better place the world is for creators and for fans. Maybe there is a future in which you cannot get someone’s work unless you support them in a committed way.
But nobody knows how much if any of this actually works. But you and me? We’re going to find out together.
A writer (perhaps better thought of as a creator who has a primary facility with words)