(Or how not to piss off your readers)
If you’re reading this blog post, I will assume (based on our blog’s title of “Write Well, Write To Sell”) that you are a writer or want to become one. Further, I will assume (reasonably so) that you are also a reader of at least the types of stories you like to write or want to write—because it wouldn’t make sense to write stories of a type you don’t like to read (although I’m sure many exceptions exist out there for many reasons).
I will also assume that what you write or plan to write is fiction—if for no reason other than you are reading this blog and fiction is what we (Scott Gamboe and I) focus on here (although we have written one nonfiction work Punctuation For Fiction Writers.
I’m going to ask you to put aside your writer’s hat temporarily and focus on what you as a reader look for in the stories you read. I also want you to put aside any genre specifics of what you read and think about the general things you look for in a good story.
Now, stop reading this post for a few minutes, grab a piece of paper, and list those things that come to mind (you can even list things like “no spelling errors”). Now, go ahead, make your list. I’ll wait.
Here’s my list:
Grabs me in the beginning and keeps me interested
Interesting characters that I care about
Good writing with some great lines
Unexpected elements and plot twists
Good editing (few or no errors)
Story doesn’t drag anywhere
Satisfying ending (wraps up well)
I could perhaps sum most of these up with ONE statement:
The writer is creative. (I’ll explain that in a moment.)
How did your list compare to mine?
As an editor I find it hard to turn off my editorial eyes when reading for pleasure. That list is more my hopes than absolute expectations because it takes a gifted writer to be able to do all of those things well. I will accept less as long as the writer delivers a story that steps beyond the staid and has competent writing.
Above I mentioned my summary statement: “The writer is creative.” What I mean is that whether the story line is a new one or an old one, the writer is still giving me something new, not something staid. A writer who knows how to use the language (including punctuation) to give the story impact (while not showing off or trying to prove something) will catch my attention. I like a writer who knows how to turn a phrase but doesn’t overdo or force it. Make me love not just the story and the characters, but the writing as well.
But what do other readers besides me expect, aside from a good story? I think the following are typical expectations.
Readers expect clean writing. Most readers are not as critical or observant of grammar and spelling as I am, but at the same time, even noncritical readers will pick up on missing words, obvious misspellings of common words, awkward sentences, and mediocre writing. They will often overlook many of these flaws if they are not pervasive or intrusive as long as the story is good and the characters are interesting.
Most readers expect is more or less “normal” writing, meaning writing that follows the basic conventions and is not idiosyncratic. Some readers have a degree of tolerance (some more than others) and like it when a writer steps outside the norm.
However, when the writer steps outside the conventions, doing must work serve and enhance the story (and not be too bizarre). If you, as a writer, don’t like to use quote marks around dialog lines, then you’d better have a good reason for doing so, and it should make not make the reader’s job more difficult in trying to figure out what’s actually spoken, what isn’t, and where the dialog begins and ends. This goes for any technique the deviates from the expected, such as frequent, long, complex sentences; omitting or minimizing dialog tags; the use of dialects and odd speech inflections. (And I advise extreme caution against going beyond these minor deviations).
Why? Because most readers simply want to enjoy what they’re reading. They don’t want to have to stop or back up to figure out who is speaking or what the speaker is actually saying—or what the writer is attempting to convey. A frustrated reader is a reader you may lose and never regain. Even if a technique works for a story, you may still face resistance if you go too far or fail to keep your reader in the loop.
In other words, RESPECT your reader, because this is what readers expect from the author. If you take on the attitude that “I’m the writer and I can do whatever I please,” then don’t expect to have a lot of adoring fans. Readers have little tolerance for authors who are prima donnas: “This is my style, like it or not, take it or leave it.” Your readers may well decide to leave it.
While the highbrow literati may appreciate your attempts to stand out and tread new ground, unless you’re catering only to those limited readers—who may (or may not) proclaim you at the “next great thing”— then your efforts will likely be self-defeating.
Readers want to trust the author. Don’t try to fool or disappoint the reader. If you’re going to pull off a cool surprise, it shouldn’t come out of nowhere, the old deus ex machina ploy where you make it happen just because you want it to happen that way. Make sure the story events follow some type of logic. (If you don’t know what “deus ex machina means, Google it and you’ll probably learn more than I would tell you.)
Along with trusting the author, readers expect that you won’t kill off a popular or favorite character because you felt like doing so and you simply put the character simply in the line of fire. In real life, yes, good people do get caught in the line of fire. But fiction is different. While fiction should mirror real life, it’s still fiction. If a reader has invested time in a character and that character dies for no good reason, you’ll likely have an upset reader. And don’t kill off a character just so you can end a series and prevent the possibility of continuing it. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle killed Sherlock Holmes, and the outrage was so great that Doyle had to resurrect Holmes. You can read about why Doyle did it here:
SIDE NOTE: I actually knew an author who admitted to getting tired of a character and therefore killed off that character. The novel part of a trilogy, but I don’t recall if the character died in the second book or near the beginning of the third one. Admittedly, the series had nowhere near the status of Sherlock Holmes, but I did know some other readers of the series who, like me, weren’t happy at the death of the character for no good reason.
Imagine the outrage (and probably a lot of hate mail and demonstrations) had J. K. Rowling killed off a major character in the middle of her series. As it was she killed off Dumbledore near the end (sorry if I spoiled it for someone who hasn’t read the series or seen all the movies), but at the same time he died nobly and for a good purpose. I still do not understand why Rowling gratuitously killed off Harry’s owl other than perhaps she didn’t want to deal with the owl any longer.
To reiterate: Readers do not expect the death of a major (or the main) character without a very good reason (such as the story being a tragedy, but tragedies likely wouldn’t cut it same way they did Shakespeare’s time). One of the more or less “rules” of modern storytelling is that if a major character dies, then you need to compensate the reader for doing so. Noble sacrifices fall in that category: the protagonist or major character makes the sacrifice so another can achieve his or her destiny. Even then, you must be careful not to upset readers such that they won’t buy your books ever again.
Readers usually like happy endings. This doesn’t mean that you must end a story happily, but it should be a satisfying ending. Otherwise, you’ll piss off your readers, who will very rapidly spread the word to avoid your books. It’s a hole you do not want to dig for yourself like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle almost did.
What about “important” writing and gorgeous literary prose?
If you believe that writing something that is “important” from a literary perspective is going to get you a lot of readers, don’t count on it. Maybe you’ll win some literary prize (I hope you do) or be published in a prestigious magazine (I hope you are). But until you do win that prize, your book sales are going to disappoint you. You’ll likely have to self-publish because very few publishers will be interested in something that isn’t likely to sell. Even after you win that prize, don’t expect much in terms of sales or for publishers to come knocking.
Most literary books sell a few thousand copies at most. It’s a sad reality that most publishers today seem to have little interest in “good literature,” because they’re more interested in turning a profit. I’m not saying that your writing shouldn’t matter, but literary writing is not where the money is. Just saying.
And here are two articles written by people in the know to support my views: