Don’t Alienate Your Audience

Posted: June 8, 2012 in Writing
Tags: , ,

I’m looking at you sci-fi authors!

Did you know that I just recently dove into the genre? And I consider myself a massive nerd, too. I think part of the reason was because I didn’t have the same type of pull to it that I did with fantasy. And it wasn’t quite as easy to get my hands on. I grew up around Harry Potter, not Star Wars. I’m not even sure I knew what the definition of science-fiction was until I went to college.

Want to know why?

I felt alienated. I felt stupid. All those fancy words and crazy contraptions. The alien species and intergalactic mumbo-jumbo that saturated every page so heavily you needed a reference guide just to get through the first chapter. No way. I’ll stick with HP – at least I understood that mumbo-jumbo.

I think in part I had a misconception of the genre. There’s some hardcore sci-fi out there, but there’s also a lot of books, movies, and TV shows that are easy to follow. Still, there’s a misconception for a reason – there are a lot of writers who feel like they have to immerse you so far into the world that you end up feeling like the alien.

Now, I’m not saying that there shouldn’t be science-fiction that caters to people who know the genre inside and out (and can probably build their own TARDIS from scratch). On the contrary, those books, movies, and TV shows NEED to exist, if only to keep the super-nerds occupied so they don’t take over the world.

But for the rest of us? We don’t actually want that.

If you’re planning to write a science-fiction novel, make sure you don’t alienate your audience. If you want a hardcore sci-fi book, that’s fine! Go write it. But be aware that you WILL lose readers because of it. If that’s fine with you, then venture into the unknown! Make sure you’re strapped down, and hold on tight!

For the rest of you, hold on just one more second.

If you want to write a good science-fiction book that anyone will enjoy, make sure you keep it relatable. Make it something that anyone would want to pick up, regardless of their usual taste in genre. Let me give you an example:

There I was happy as a clam, perfectly content to pick up fantasy after fantasy. I didn’t care that there was more out there. I didn’t know there was more.

Then I went to college. I got into a writing class. (The course of my life was altered forever.) I met people. One of those people was a guy named Mike. Mike was cool. Mike was brilliant. Mike was a great storyteller. Mike wrote science-fiction.


Uh oh. Could I do this? Could I understand what Mike was writing about? Would I be able to edit his fiction? I didn’t know anything about warp-drives (is that a real thing? I may have made that up) or black holes or how people can live amongst the stars and not have a panic attack whenever they look out the window and see nothing but an empty sky around them for literally billions of miles.

And you know what? I did have trouble with the story. It was a dense read – a good one, a great one even – but hard. I gave him some advice – not that he needed it. He knew what he was doing. But even if the advice couldn’t be applied to his story, it can still be applied to other ones. Here’s what I said:

Don’t alienate your audience. Don’t write so above them that they feel too stupid to continue reading your book. You have a chance here – a wonderful, unique chance to convert a fantasy reader into a science-fiction reader. Don’t lose that opportunity.

(But there’s a bigger lesson here. I’ve known some writer-snobs in my lifetime, and I don’t like the reputation they make for the rest of us. Some authors feel as if they have to be intellectual all the time. They have to be critical, sarcastic, and cynical. Guess what? You don’t! For certain people, there’s a time and a place for that. But most of the time? Let it go. Don’t shoot down potential readers on Twitter. Don’t be caught saying nasty things about your audience. They’re the ones paying you, after all. Even if your first instinct is to defend your work against those that you deem inferior, don’t let the ugly monster rear its head. Don’t alienate your audience.)

And it’s true, isn’t it? I know it was in my case. I took a chance watching Doctor Who even though I knew nothing about it other than it had a huge and very loyal fan base. I knew it was science-fiction, but I thought I’d give it a shot. I was feeling adventurous.

Well, if you’ve read this post, you’ll know that I fell in love. And guess what I did right after that? I watched Firefly. Then I watched Serenity. I now literally beg people for suggestions for my next sci-fi fill (any recommendations??). And you know what is going to happen eventually? I’m going to delve deeper into the genre and start getting into the heavier, scarier stuff.

How cool is that?

See what can happen when you have a good story and some relatable characters? Your book doesn’t need all that crazy talk to sit on the sci-fi shelf at B&N. Take the opportunity you’re being given. Write something that’ll make a nerdy girl who always has her nose in a book wonder why the heck it has taken her so long to realize how cool science-fiction really is.

This is part one in a two-post series. The next one will be about not underestimating your audience. Stay tuned!

  1. Juliana Haygert says:

    You know, I thought about writing a sci-fi story once when an idea struck me. But it didn’t go far. I changed the idea to fantasy instead because I don’t think I would ever be able to write sci-fi. It’s a whole different array of things and terms to consider and I’m not really geared toward that.
    Though I enjoy reading (some) sci-fi books 😉

    • Karen Rought says:

      I actually totally understand what you mean! I’ve been getting into a lot more lately, but I just don’t have the knowledge to make it sound authentic. Maybe I will one day, but until then I’m steering clear! It’s a strange feeling for me though, like I can’t write in a certain genre. It’s honestly the only I actually feel like I couldn’t write even if I tried!

  2. Science fiction is not about using the right terminology; it’s still about story, surely? If someone wants to read a technical manual, let them, the hard-core obsessives that write this sort of stuff want you to feel alienated: they are the ‘the universe will be mine’ overlord kind of baddies anyway.

    In every world there is a social hierarchy, you don’t have to write about a science fiction world from a knowledgeable point of view, see it through the ‘layman’s’ eyes. I do believe there are cleaners at the CERN project, they don’t understand particle physics, they just clean, but they are also exposed to the world of cutting edge atomic particle science – well, hopefully not too exposed – we don’t want them developing superpowers or creating a black hole just to get rid of the rubbish, or do we?

    • Karen Rought says:

      Don’t we? Because that would awesome! I mean, yes – of course. That would be bad.

      But you’re absolutely right. It’s all about the story. At the end of the day, that’s all anyone wants to read about anyway. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!!

  3. Julie Glover says:

    The best sci-fi I’ve read/seen are stories of what-if based on the advancement of science. Essentially, that’s the question with the X-Men: What’s the next step of evolution? The movie Gattaca was great because it asked: What if we could design our children’s genetic make-up? Terminator asked: What if we invent technology that takes over? (It’s a souped-up version of 2001: A Space Odyssey, I suppose.) Of course, there’s Planet of the Apes, Mad Max, and many others. I think of all of these as science-fiction because they ask questions related to science. I don’t know if that’s the classic definition, though.

    Interesting post, Karen. I especially agree that sci-fi isn’t just techno-babble. It should address issues that we can all relate to.

    • Karen Rought says:

      That’s a great point! And I think that’s why Sci-fi is so alluring, isn’t it? Everyone is interested in what the future is going to look like. Science-fiction explores those paths for us. Thanks for stopping by and commenting!!

  4. Fabio Bueno says:

    I’ve been in love with sci-fi since I was a kid. I’m old school: I even read Asimov’s short stories from the 50’s. I was also a subscriber to Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine (which introduced me to dozens of authors, some of them legends). I don’t understand the concept of “not knowing science fiction” 🙂
    By the way, the purist calls the genre “speculative fiction”, for the reason Julie mentioned above.

    • Karen Rought says:

      Thanks for the terminology, Fabio! I still have a lot to learn, so every little bit counts. I think that’s great that you “get” science-fiction so well — you’re lucky! Thanks for stopping by, as always. 🙂

  5. I draw distinctions between rubbish sci-fi of the Hollywood variety (including Trek), which is fundamentally vapid techno-babble designed to entertain – and the ‘real’ sci fi of greats such as Bradbury (sadly passed away this week), Clarke, Asimov and Heinlein in particular. The latter were all based in uber-solid real science – but that was only ever the backdrop to some great stories with great characters. That, really, was what it was about – good writing, good storytelling, capturing their audience. I’d class Heinlein, in particular, as one of the US’s greatest writers of the 20th century – the fact that he wrote ‘science fiction’ does not diminish his literary genius.

    Clarke, incidentally, is the only person I’m aware of who properly predicted the advent of cheap, ubiquitous mass communication, worldwide – and worked out how that would change the way we live, think and connect. He first began detailing the specifics in the 1960s, and his prescience was extraordinary. Back then, ‘the future’ was meant to be flying cars, food-by-pill, mega-cities, Trek-type transporters and so forth. Big, monster engineering adventures. None of which really came true – instead we’ve had a future that nobody predicted, around a technical innovation that nobody anticipated. Except Clarke.

    • Karen Rought says:

      That’s extremely interesting. Sadly, I’ve only ever heard of Asimov, but I will definitely be looking into all of them. Clarke sounds like one that I would definitely be into. Thank you for the great comment!

  6. I agree with everything you’ve said actually. I love science fiction and I’m a huge nerd, but some of the books I pick up are too heavy a read for me. They feel like a textbook. If I wanted to read a textbook, I would have picked up a textbook. Part of what I want to do with my writing is make is accessible for someone who hasn’t read the genre before (though I’m a fantasy writer not a science fiction writer at the moment).

    If you’re looking for something to watch, I recommend Battlestar Galactica. They don’t make you feel stupid.

    • Karen Rought says:

      Thank you, Marcy! I totally understand what you’re saying. Some high fantasy is too dense for me too. It’s nice that those kinds of books exist, and I want to read them once in awhile, but it’s important that newer authors realize that you don’t HAVE to write that way.

      I started watching Battlestar Galactica. Actually, I began watching it because I read a really great post about it on your blog! I like it a lot so far. 🙂

  7. ddog13 says:

    This post didn’t show up in my email for some reason. I’m glad I stopped by to catch it in time. There are stories which are so far into an unbelievable world that it feels sketchy: Like it was only making sense to the author. I’ve read countless books that come across as sketchy, because the author forgets his audience. Great post. I can totally relate.

  8. Nice post. The tension between building a world and letting the reader step into it is always a tricky one. A good reminder to keep it accessible and relatable.

  9. crazywitch25 says:

    I usually have to ask the experts a billion questions. No diamond for the spaceship! That was the most hilarious question I’ve ever asked. I’m not like you guys, however. I don’t write because I enjoy it or seek an audience. I do it because my brain needs a workout. The hardest thing that I find about writing is indeed not alienating my audience, though I don’t feel superior. In fact, my lack of knowledge makes it easier to reach my audience, but my writing is often less than desirable. I don’t have the same emotion-base as you guys. I find too much effort goes into maudlin works or that is my opinion. Perhaps my efforts would be better suited with technical manuals.

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