Respecting the Reader

I hear a lot of novelists talking about writing to entertain themselves. While I agree that the author herself is the first audience and you can't write a good story if you're getting no enjoyment from it, I also believe that the end consumer, the readers most likely to plunk down their hard-earned money and invest their valuable time, should be the writer's most important consideration.

Yes, that sometimes means putting their tastes ahead of your own personal preferences. Sometimes, it may mean back-burnering your personal point of view on controversial topics so as not to jerk the readers out of the story and alienate them--or at least not clobbering them over the head with your agenda when you're writing the kind of story people pick up to entertain them. Always, it means being aware of the reader's emotional investment in the characters and story and not abusing it.

All of this, of course, depends on the audience you're dealing with. When I'm working on a book that's closer to a mainstream thriller than a romance, I know (from reading tons of books in the genre, along with lots of reviews, online chatter, and communications from readers themselves) that the reader expects to be kept in suspense, surprised--sometimes even horrified or challenged. It's all part of the experience, though you're generally going to hack off much of your audience if you cross certain lines (the killing of a viewpoint character the reader identifies with, a lovable/helpless pet, or child, or the use of offensive stereotypes as short-cuts.) When I'm writing for an audience that's going to be more invested in the romance or is looking for a shorter, more escapist read, I heap on the action-adventure and keep the suspense quick, punchy, and a whole lot less bloody, since these readers want and expect a quicker release from their tension. I'm also careful to quickly force the romantic leads together and keep them together, because their interaction and the tension between them is what keeps these readers coming back for more.

In my opinion, it's a matter of respect. Respect your reader, respect her time and preferences, and never, ever talk down to her--because a reader can smell condescension miles away. If you write with her in mind, she will definitely reward going out and purchasing your backlist, along with the next book that you write.


Suzan Harden said…
I'm sorry, Colleen, but I can't write the virgin nanny/secret baby/billionare cowboy sheik stories. I know a large group of readers love them, but I really suck at it.

Now zombies trying to kill the maid-of-honor during a bachelorette party at Chip-n-dales? That I can do.

I just hope there are readers with enough of that type of sense of humor to read it.
Don't be sorry, Suzan. I think it's disingenuous to write anything you don't enjoy. Pandering to the reader doesn't work.

But for those whose guilty pleasure is a good zombie, sheik, or secret baby story, why not?

The idea is not to write for every audience, but yours, and I'm sure that there's an audience that will love your wicked humor.
Sharon said…
This is such a great post, Colleen, and something I wish all writers would keep in mind.

It makes me remember hearing the commentary for the first season of Lost, and how the writers thought it would be cool to kill Jack in the first episode because he was the POV character. ("Look how bold/original we are!") Thankfully someone made them change that idea. And I think they would have lost lots of viewers if they did it. I wouldn't have watched anymore because you would have felt like the ground dropped out from under your feet.
Jeanna Thornton said…
Writing for an audience is a big order but a good order. You certainly have done well with it. Hopefully, the audience will be lenient if we pour ourselves into the words...and respect the reader.

I loved the posts! Cheers!!
I think there's a fine line between selling your soul down the river and alienating the reader with self-indulgent prose or aren't-I-clever plot twists (like Sharon's excellent example from LOST.) The trick is finding that line and walking it day by day.
Amanda Stevens said…
I learned early on to disrespect reader expectations at my own peril. Great post.
Lark Howard said…
Great post! I want to add--don't take any cheap shortcuts to "trick" the reader. I once read a book where the villianess calls her mystery lover by the hero's name to make the reader think the guy's cheating on/lying to the heroine. It wasn't him, not even the same name and I never read another of the author's books because I felt betrayed. Respecting the reader is a huge deal in my opinion.
I hear you on that, Lark. Writers sometimes cheat the reader by skipping past highly emotionally charged scenes and referring only to the aftermath. If you're going to build up to something, put it on the page!

And I've learned those same early lessons, Amanda. I know a lot of newer writers talk about not "caving" to genre/reader expectations and artistic integrity and so forth, but the point of writing for publication rather than journaling is the shared experience. Otherwise, you're playing solitaire, and you'll have the audience to prove it.

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