I made a reader cry and it felt good

This week a reader of my book The Mechanical Crown informed me that a particular chapter had made him cry. I received this news with utter glee. Since I started writing seriously about four years ago I’ve successfully written exciting, mysterious, funny and tense stories.

But to make somebody cry? That’s a milestone.

I have a peculiar creative process which involves me writing and publishing a new chapter of my book online every week. The best way to think of it is as a public first draft, a description which tends to provoke looks of terror and/or disbelief from other writers.

Regardless, it works for me and I’ve been writing consistently in this serialised form for several years having spent the previous thirty being entirely unproductive. I’ve covered this as a productivity technique in previous articles:

A major motivating factor behind this process is that I receive feedback every week from readers who are brave enough to encounter this work-in-progress, serialised novel. This week, this comment appeared:

As a matter of policy, I make a point of not making people cry in my everyday life, whether at work or at home. I monitor my own behaviour to try to make sure I’m being fair and kind, even while fighting for what I believe. In other words, I follow Wheaton’s Law:

Image from mweb

And yet.

As an author, that general mantra tends to go out the window. I’m no longer Nice Simon, attempting to make the world a better place through example. Instead, I’m an utter bastard looking to find the fastest, most effective way to manipulate and take advantage of a person’s emotions. I’m using every psychological trick in the book — by way of the written word — to get the result I desire: to make someone afraid, or excited, or upset.

I made someone cry, deliberately, and felt good about it. Mission accomplished!

Except not really.

The books I write are fiction, so they’re a few steps removed from actual cause and consequence. If I make a reader feel sad, or scared, or happy, they intrinsically know that the feeling is based on a fabrication, even if their response is honest.

For me, the accomplishment here is not simply the visceral, immediate response from the reader to this specific moment, but the understanding that this reaction was only possible due to the work that has gone into developing the story and its characters over the previous two years.

As the second book I’ve written, The Mechanical Crown has been more challenging in every respect than my previous project, A Day of Faces. That the responses are more varied is a good indication that the challenge has helped to deepen the experience for readers.

I still find myself momentarily stunned that anybody reads my work at all, let alone has intense emotional responses to it. Being an author — assuming that other people in the would should read your words — is inherently an act of extreme arrogance and ego, so it’s no surprise that the end goal for many of us is to pull and prod at emotional nerve endings.

Much as horror is a way for people to process fears without being in actual danger, so writing is a way for me to explore concepts of aggression and manipulation in ways I would never think to employ in real life. My fiction serves me as an outlet for difficult notions and responses, acting as a pressure release. Which isn’t to say that without my writing I’d turn into some kind of monster; instead, it’s a way to acknowledge that such motivations exist, and that bad things happen in the world, and that every human has the potential for ugliness.

And then, outside of my fiction, back in the real world, I’m able to fully concentrate on abiding by Wheaton’s Law:

Image from mweb

Thanks for reading! You can find out more about my writing at simonkjones.com, where you can also sign up to my lovely newsletter.