Author Holly McDowell On Life As A Writer Taking Orders From Readers

When author Holly McDowell has writer’s block, she doesn’t get up for more coffee or browse the web. Instead, she just consults her readers.

McDowell is writing her interactive serial novel King Solomon’s Wives armed with a computer, her imagination and lots and lots of data about her readers. Thanks to McDowell's publisher Coliloquy, a pioneering digital publishing startup that lets readers determine a book’s outcome, when her readers stop reading, she knows. When they go back to reread a section, she knows. And when they want to hear more about a character, she knows -- because she asks them.

At the end of each installment of the serialized story, which sees a new "episode" released every three to four months, readers get to vote on what should happen next or which character should take center stage. Recently, the readers weighed in to determine the setting for a forthcoming episode. Chicago and New Orleans beat out Paris, Venice, Rome and Istanbul. In a forthcoming poll, McDowell will survey her readers on which male character they want to take center stage.

"I'm really curious to know the answer," she said.

We asked her what it’s like to be an author writing by committee and how books that read readers will reshape literature.

What do you learn about readers as they read? I know how many read to the end of the book and how many go back and reread certain chapters. I know if someone stops in the middle of the story and puts it down. If a lot of people stop at the same point, I’ll know that maybe that chapter wasn’t as interesting. It’s incredible.

What data do you use when you write? The main thing I look at are the choice points people voted on. At the end of episode two, I’m asking people which one of the wives would they most like to see have a romantic storyline, which is dangerous for them [N.B.: the female protagonists have been put under a curse that makes their touch addictive to others]. Which one will they put in trouble? Episode two isn’t out yet, but I’m really curious to know the answer.

Does this data-intensive approach make writing easier? Harder? It makes it tons easier. It’s like I have a million options and the voting narrows those options down to just two or three, and that gets my imagination going. It’s like a writing prompt. It’s a jumping off point.

It also helps me know if I'm on the right track with the pacing. If I have a lot of exposition and less action, and that did well in one episode, then I know to keep the same level of pacing in the next episode.

Are you on guard against certain information you don’t want to let change the way you write? There are things I’m trying to say about what it’s like to be a woman in society today and the pressures we have. If all the feedback showed that people just wanted a chase scene and didn’t necessarily want to read about how my characters feel about their world, I might find that a little frustrating.

Do readers know what they want? They know what they’re interested in and they know what they want to hear more about. For sure. They’ll read a chapter where I’m describing all of the wives, and certain ones intrigue them, and certain ones don’t. They’ll want to hear more about some and not others.

Are we headed for a place where everyone writes by committee? It is sort of writing by committee, but it’s not exactly a democracy. Because in the end, if I really didn’t want to write about New Orleans, I wouldn’t have to.

Have you ever overridden them? Not yet. The thing to remember is I get to pick the list of five, say, wives the reader gets to pick from so I’m not opposed to any of them up front.

How will books be shaped if they know how they’re being read? How does that dialogue between text and reader change the text? What I’m writing now is not really a book at all. I consider it a story.

I think that stories can be significantly bigger. It’s like a TV series: You can explore five big themes instead of two. You can explore many more aspects of your world.

It’s also like role-playing in a video game where you go in as one character, play it through, then go in as another character and play it all again. The story you're seeing plays out changes and gets bigger and bigger, even though the world it's in stays the same. So you move away from the tyranny of the plot? It seems like it becomes about the world you're creating and the characters in it rather than a sequence of events. Absolutely. This is not a linear storyline. You can think of it like concentric circles. In each episode you’re moving closer and closer into the center rather than going in a straight line.

How would Anna Karenina or The Great Gatsby be different if the authors had had input from their readers? Take Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: The main character in that novel does some things readers aren’t crazy about. He makes some poor choices. Sometimes he’s a little bit of a jerk.

Imagine if Hemingway had released one chapter at a time and he had readers telling him, "This guy is sort of a jerk. Why is he doing that?" It would have been a completely different book if Hemingway had listened.

So the readers might have saved the protagonist from himself? I wonder. If they did, I’m not sure the book would have been as great.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.