Writing… and the Reading Comfort Zone

One of many things I’ve learned in over forty years as a published science fiction and fantasy writer is that while readers span a great range of interests, backgrounds, and enthusiasm for the printed word, and some of those readers enjoy varying types of work, a great many readers have a fairly narrow comfort zone. Years ago, when I wrote The Towers of the Sunset, my editor, the venerable David Hartwell, asked, “Could you write this book in the third person past tense?”

“Why?” I asked. “It’s a better book in the third person present tense. It wouldn’t work as well in the past tense.”

“Because most readers are more comfortable reading books written in the third person past tense, and you’ll lose readers if this book is published as you wrote it.”

I persisted; David accepted the novel as written in the third person present tense, except he did want an expansion of the last part, and he was definitely right about that. He was also right about a number of readers not liking the use of present tense, especially when the book was first published, but those who liked the use of the present tense really liked it, and, as a result, I’ve gotten the impression, over the more than twenty years since Towers was published, that it has tended to be a reader’s most favorite or least favorite book in the entire Saga of Recluce, despite the fact that, since then, I’ve written other Recluce novels in present tense as well.

Then a number of years later, I wrote another book – Archform:Beauty – in which I told the story from the viewpoints of five different characters – in first person past tense. It got great reviews… and sold only moderately well. At times, a differing approach upsets both readers and reviewers, as was the case with Empress of Eternity, where the interweaving three narrative lines set in vastly different future time periods is based on an actual theory of time [not mine] suggested by Einstein’s work.

Readers also have expectations of a writer, and this was made very clear by the five books of the Spellsong Cycle and by Arms-Commander, the sixteenth book of the Recluce Saga, all of which were told from the female perspective, and all of which sold at lower levels than comparable books of mine told from the male point of view. I actually got comments and emails from male readers saying that they just couldn’t identify with a female point of view, that they weren’t comfortable with it.

Over the years, I’ve done a number of books that have incorporated, shall we say, departures from standard third person, past tense, straight line narrative, and there’s a definite bottom-line cost to continuing to write such books.

In general, the greater the degree of separation from “standard narrative,” the lower the comparative sales numbers were. For those of you who bemoan the “sameness” of so many books, you might bear in mind that professional writers do need to make a living, and when innovation reduces the publisher’s income, and correspondingly, the writer’s income, both tend to become more conservative. There are, of course, exceptions to this, but not, generally, among writers whose works support them. In fact, I’m probably one of a very few self-supporting full-time writers who produces a relatively divergent range of books, under the same name. I know a few other writers who try to avoid the sales drop-off and market to distinct classes of readers by using different pen names for different kinds of books, but I guess I’m just a bit old-fashioned, because, to me, that’s catering a bit too much to readers’ comfort zones.

In the end, I not only want to entertain and hopefully enthrall my readers, but also at least edge them out of their comfort zone to some degree, if not more, to get them to consider anything from a slight to a far different perspective, and like all writers, I doubtless have mixed success. But it’s still worth trying.

9 thoughts on “Writing… and the Reading Comfort Zone”

  1. Sean says:

    Almost finished with Heritage of Cyador. Having been a reader of your books for slightly over hald of your career, I have enjoyed immensely all of your works and enjoyed being streched out of my comfort zone.
    I will have to say that Towers of the Sunset and Empress of Eternity are perhaps two of the books that stand out best in my mind as my “favorites”. The other favorite being the Imager series.
    I can’t say the same of Archform:Beauty. I know I read it, but no scenes or summary come to mind.
    Anyway thanks for all the good work and keep them coming!

  2. Wine Guy says:

    I’ve been listening to the Fall of Angels audiobook and depending on who the narrative is following, it is either 3rd person present or 3rd person past. It makes for an effect and creates a subtle tension between the two narrative lines. Switching tenses while switching narrative lines makes sense to me – it was quite effective at creating a tension between when Lerris was present and when he was not.

    Problems with having female lead characters? People need to get over that. There is good stuff being written by plenty of authors that have female leads.

  3. Bob Vowell says:

    Do you have any idea if the same holds true for female authors. Do you think the demographics of the core audience provide a bracket of what is the norm and how far an author can deviate outside of that bracket?

    1. I don’t know that demographics would provide an answer. From what I can determine, I have a wide demographic range of readers, but there are still some books that don’t appeal to a noticeable percentage of my readers. I think it’s more a matter of reader expectations, and when an author goes beyond or outside the expectations of a particular reader, the author loses the reader for that book.

  4. Hanneke says:

    I’d like to add my impression of the Spellsong Cycle, and why I stopped reading it. I don’t know if it might be a useful additional data point for you, as I’m just one reader, but it doesn’t quite jibe with your statistical conclusion.
    I’m a woman, a voracious reader, and recently noticed that the majority of the books I’ve bought and enjoyed in the last few years have female protagonists, so I don’t have a bias against those.
    Also, I’ve got about two shelves of your books that I’ve read and enjoyed, but I wouldn’t characterize myself as a hard-core fan, as I haven’t read everything (yet) – I’ve bought the Imager series but only read the first one yet, and am several books behind on the Recluce series (Arms-commander is still on the to-read pile, I got distracted into genre-hopping).
    But I too stopped reading and buying the Spellsong Cycle after book 2 or 3, because it felt too negative, too hopeless about the situation of the women in that world to me. Maybe that was just too close to the situation for a lot of real women in the real world for me to be comfortable reading about these small improvements being undone as soon as possible by the powers-that-be in that world, when I read for relaxation and escape.

    So maybe the lesser sales aren’t just due to the protagonist being a woman, but also to some other elements of the feel of the books. I’m
    sorry, I’m not used to talking about the books I read, and it was a long time ago when I read the first books about the Soprano Sorceress, so I can’t really articulate it better.
    For me it clearly wasn’t because the main character was a woman, apart from the very clear demonstration that leads to of how unfair and unpleasant the world can be to women just because of them being female, and how little hope there is of changing that for the better, and getting the changes to stick, when there is so much entrenched power with vested interests in keeping the women down.
    Though I’m one of the privileged, living in a country with a gender-equality law, that’s something that I think most women are quite aware of, and it sort of hurts my heart to dwell on the situation for less-privileged women all over the world – I guess these books triggered that hurt, which made me unable to enjoy them. Though the scenario in which the small gains of autonomy are quickly slapped down is more realistic, I prefer to get a positive feeling, a feeling of hope from my reading, and I didn’t, from the first books in the Spellsong Cycle.

    (By the way, drgging-and-dropping the verification doesn’t work on my iPad. Maybe I’m doing something wrong?)

    1. Tim says:

      The iPaD verification has not worked since Apple IOS upgraded about a year back. This is irritating as I have to go to my study to log onto the PC.

      Spellsong is my least favourite series, but I will admit I was reluctant to say so since I am male, and was worried that I was exhibiting some kind of bias. However after a post some months back from @Kathyrn, I examined my shelves carefully and found that I had several novels with women as the main characters, which was a relief:)

      1. James says:

        I (as a male) very much enjoyed the Spellsong Cycle.
        On the other hand, I was not a fan of “the Lady-Protectors Daughter”, at least not to begin with. Eventually I decided my dislike was mainly of Mykella (at the beginning of the book) and I enjoyed it by the end.

        For reference, “Haze” would have to be my least favourite Modesitt book, and “The Ethos Effect” my favourite.

        On a completely unrelated note: I don’t often (ever?) post here however I very much enjoy your blog… So since I’m commenting anyway, hello and thanks from Australia!

  5. Grey says:

    Slightly off-topic, but I’m wondering if you tried reading “Feersum Endjinn” by Iain Banks. It’s a sci-fi featuring many chapters written in first-person, phonetic Scottish.* http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feersum_Endjinn It breaks your brain at first, but after a few chapters I found myself not noticing it.

    *Well, non-Earth English that seems quite a bit like Scottish or Cockney, I guess.

    @Hanneke – drag and drop as done on this site doesn’t work on some touchscreens

    1. I read Feersum Endjinn years ago. I thought it was a decent book, but not as good as some of his other works. I liked The Hydrogen Sonata much better.

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