by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley
The popular advice for writers is to write your first draft for just one person and then to revise for the world. Your voice, they say, should be personal and true and deep but the story itself must have mass-market appeal. This is a rainbow I chased for a long time. Lately, though, I’m starting to question the simple assumption that success is measured by the number of readers. If I’m writing purely for money, then cash paid and readership are pretty good metrics. But I — and I think many of us — love the idea of touching our readers. We want our words to make a difference.
Here’s the epiphany: For me, it’s OK if the words make a difference to only a few people. Success, I’m finding, has more to do with how I feel than how much exposure I get. In fact, the wider the exposure of any piece of work, the more varied are the responses that I receive. Honestly: the more people who read my work, the more bizarre one-star reviews I get, in which people tell the world that I should have made the plane crash more entertaining, or that my faeries are not as clever as they think they are.
It’s hard for me to remember how this works. Reviews aren’t for the author. And although each one-star review might be a perfectly reasonable perspective, it isn’t necessarily useful.
It’s much more useful to consider what success means.
I like to bake. When I bake a cake, it benefits only a few people. The time invested is a lot smaller, of course, but it makes me happy to see my friends and family beam at my mountains of inexpertly-applied buttercream frosting. No one ever tells me that the cakes at the bakery are more perfectly crafted and no one complains that I used dark chocolate instead of milk. No, the response is universal: “Yay, Sylvia made cake!”
When I think about what makes me happy about stories, I think it’s less about the best-seller lists that I will never be on and more about creating story-cake.
When I met my current partner, I wrote a short story for him. It was a very specific story that played on a shared experience of ours and that only I could tell. I wrote it because I wanted to impress him and I thought he might like it. He did and he kissed me. (Note to self: write him more stories.)
This year, I’ve been writing “corporate science fiction” for a technology company, where I investigate specific technologies and write near-future science fiction stories about these technologies and how the people of the future interact with them. We present the story at a workshop; I read the story aloud and then a brainstorming session takes place to discuss how we get from here to the future (and whether that would be desirable). Each story is for a single department and each department only has a few people interested in the project. At the last event, I read to less than a dozen people. Three of them came up to me afterwards and thanked me for the story. It was such a relief, they told me, to have a security story where the bad guy was a real bad guy. Where the security hardware and software that they worked hard on actually protected people and had a purpose, rather than making everyone involved in cybersecurity out to be a government pawn in some terrible futuristic dystopia. They weren’t used to being represented positively in popular fiction, but this story was written for them, about them. At every workshop, I make another couple of fans, who are excited that I’m speaking directly to them.
I spent a week on a small, isolated Welsh island as a self-made writing retreat. Once I was home again, I had a million deadlines but I got stuck on this one weird idea: a love-letter to the island in the form of a recipe. I made my deadlines but lost a week working on that piece. It won’t sell to any magazines: it’s full of inside-information, too detailed. There’s too much background knowledge that the reader has to bring to the table. It’s just too personal.
When I went back to the island for a second retreat, I read the story to the other people who were staying there. There were a few bird watchers and two photographers there for the week, along with the wardens and two young volunteers working on the island for the summer. They were pretty dubious when I said I was going to do a reading. None of them really understood what this weird American woman was doing there all week and when I said it was a literary piece, experimental… well, you can imagine the response.
I started to read with a shaky voice. Within a few sentences, they were smiling, then laughing. By the end, I could see tears in their eyes.
This story only worked for that audience of a dozen people: those who were right there with me and knew exactly what I was talking about. I count that story as the most powerful thing I wrote last year.
No one sneered at my story-cake. No one said that there were better story-cakes with higher suspense and more meaningful themes. No one asked why I’d bother to create a story-cake when there were already so many story-cakes in the world. No one told me that they preferred another flavour. They were just happy to have experienced the story.
I write for mainstream audiences because that is what a professional does and I’m trying to make a living. Money earned is one metric of success. But the truth is, the stories I truly believe are my most successful have only been read by a handful of people and that doesn’t diminish their value for me one bit. Sales and recognition are simply the cherry on the cake.
Sylvia Spruck Wrigley’s first long work, Domnall and the Borrowed Child, is now available from Tor.com.
Sylvia was born in Germany and spent her childhood in Los Angeles. She emigrated to Scotland where she guided German tourists around the Trossachs and searched for the supernatural. She now splits her time between South Wales and Andalucia where she writes about plane crashes and faeries, which have more in common than most people might imagine. Her fiction was nominated for a Nebula in 2014 and her short stories have been translated into over a dozen languages.